Saudi officials have detained 908 Nigerian women at the Jeddah airport in a dispute over whether they were to be accompanied by male guardians.
Detention of almost 1,000 female Haj pilgrims causes diplomatic rift
The detention of 908 Nigerian female pilgrims at the Jeddah airport has opened a diplomatic rift between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, which called the detentions an "ugly development".
Officials in Jeddah began detaining the pilgrims earlier this week in a dispute over whether the women were to be accompanied by male guardians. The National Haj Commission of Nigeria said in a statement on Wednesday that the women were being kept in "very poor living conditions" and said some required "urgent medical attention".
One hundred and fifty-nine of the pilgrims were deported to Nigeria on Wednesday, over diplomatic protests from Abuja.
"Should the Saudi authorities not desire our pilgrims to perform this year's Haj, they should let the country know," Namadi Sambo, Nigeria's vice president, told the state news agency on Wednesday.
The Saudi ministry for the Haj requires all women under the age of 45 to be accompanied by a Mahram, a male guardian, but Nigerian authorities said that this stipulation had previously been waived for pilgrims who travelled with the country's Haj commission. It noted that all the detained women had been granted visas to perform the pilgrimage.
All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are expected to perform the Haj pilgrimage at least once.
Some of the Nigerian women were travelling with guardians, but the names on their respective passports were not identical because women in Nigeria do not always take their husbands' surnames, the Nigerian Haj commission said. This created confusion when the immigration officials chose to clear men through customs first.
"Some of the females demanded to have their Mahram with them yet the immigration officers turned deaf ears on their plea as such the male Mahram were forced to proceed with their journey," the statement said.
Nigeria, which is home to the largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa, reacted with anger to the developments. Nigeria's vice president summoned the kingdom's ambassador in Abuja, Khaled Abdrabuh, on Wednesday and gave him a 24-hour ultimatum to solve the crisis.
The meeting followed attempts by Nigeria's minister of state for foreign affairs, as well as the consulate general in Jeddah, to intervene. Nigeria's Haj commission said on Wednesday it believed that the matter was now before the governor of Mecca, Prince Khalid Al Faisal.
Nigerian authorities say they will resist further deportations and refuse to pay any fees that arise from the dispute. "There is the need for presidential intervention with the Saudi King," said the Haj commission statement.
The Saudi Embassy in Abuja had no comment on the matter yesterday.
Nigerian officials are particularly angered by perceived discrimination against their citizens.
"Nigeria's government is accusing the Saudi government of applying the restrictions to Nigerians only," said Muhammad Zubairu, a lawyer and human-rights activist based in Nigeria's largest majority-Muslim city, Kano. During past Hajs, Nigerian pilgrims have been accused of carrying cholera, Mr Zubairu said.
Analysts said that the dispute could weaken the kingdom's relations with Nigeria, which in recent years has sent one of the largest contingents of pilgrims from the non-Arab world.
"The only historical and continuing relationship is the need for Muslims to go for Haj as a fulfilment of their religious obligation," said Abba Kyari, a former presidential adviser.
About half of Nigeria's 160 million people are Muslim.
Thousands of Nigerians attending the Haj each year. Cities in the country's Muslim majority northern region are quiet for weeks, as everyone from top officials to tailors and taxi drivers head to Mecca.
Mr Zubairu said that many Nigerians sell their property to gather enough money to travel on the Haj pilgrimage, which in 2011 cost a minimum of 520,249 Naira (Dh12,144).
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Press and the Associated Press