Saudi Arabia handed down sentences this week to two airport officials accused of sexually harassing teenage Iranian pilgrims, in a case that prompted Iran to cancel pilgrimages to the kingdom and escalated tensions between the regional rivals. A criminal court in Jeddah sentenced the two officers to four years in jail and 1,000 lashes each in a Wednesday ruling, the Associated Press reported.
Authorities began legal proceedings against the two workers, who have not been named, in April after allegations of sexual harassment against the Iranian pilgrims surfaced. News of the incident sparked anger in Iran, where authorities permitted a rare protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. In response to growing public anger, Iran’s government announced that it had suspended all umrah pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, with Culture Minister Ali Jannati saying that the suspension would remain in place until the Saudi government punished the perpetrators.
"Considering what has happened, Iranians' dignity has been damaged and a public demand has formed," Jannati said, in comments reported by the BBC.
The umrah, or “lesser,” pilgrimage sees some 500,000 Iranians travel to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites, throughout the year. An additional 100,000 Iranian pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia for the major hajj pilgrimage, which is scheduled to take place in September this year. The suspension of the trips by Iran was seen as a “major escalation” in the rivalry between the Sunni kingdom and the Shiite republic.
Tensions between the two have long simmered in the background of regional conflicts. However, the Saudi-led airstrike campaign in Yemen targeting Iranian-backed Shiite rebels has provoked open hostility between the two governments. This has just exacerbated tensions concerning already fraught subjects like the pilgrimage. The Islamic rite, a requirement for all able-bodied Muslims, has a charged history in Saudi-Iranian relations; Iran barred its citizens from taking part in the ritual after 1987 clashes between Saudi security forces and Iranian pilgrims in Mecca that left 400 dead.
The current antagonism about the pilgrimage is unlikely to dissipate soon as Saudi Arabia now has its own set of grievances against the Islamic Republic where pilgrims are concerned. On Tuesday, the kingdom summoned Iran’s envoy to express deep concern over the poisoning deaths of four Saudi pilgrims in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. An additional 28 pilgrims, who were in the city to visit a major Shiite shrine, were also hospitalized. While Iranian authorities have said that the deaths were the result of accidental overexposure to insect spray, five people have been arrested in connection with the incident.