FILE PHOTO: Muslims circle the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca
By Sylvia Westall and Tom Finn
DUBAI/DOHA (Reuters) - Qatari pilgrims began arriving in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, Saudi media reported, after Riyadh said it was opening up its border and airports for those attending the annual haj pilgrimage despite a diplomatic rift that cut travel ties.
Qatar welcomed the Saudi decision to open the frontier and provide flights for Qatari pilgrims, but regarded the move as politically motivated, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed transport links with Qatar in June and imposed sanctions, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and Iran, which Doha denies.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the Salwa border point would be open for Qataris performing the haj, which this year runs from late August to early September.
Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television reported that about 120 Qatari pilgrims had entered Saudi territory on Thursday through Salwa, which was opened for the first time since the four-nation boycott of Qatar began.
The pilgrims entered as guests of the Saudi king, al-Arabiya reported. There was no immediate confirmation of the report by border officials on the Qatari side of the frontier.
"Despite the fact it's been politically motivated to ban the Qatari people from haj and politically motivated that they allow them (in)..., we welcome such a step, which is a step forward to get rid of this blockade that is imposed against my country," Sheikh Mohammed told a news conference on a visit to Sweden.
He did not elaborate on what he meant by "politically motivated".
Saudi Arabia had already stated that Qatari pilgrims would not be affected by the travel restrictions, but some Qataris have said they faced difficulties organizing the trip.
Qatari pilgrims can cross the frontier without the permits usually needed to be obtained in advance for the haj, SPA said.
The Saudi king has ordered the dispatch of a Saudi Airlines plane to fly Qatari pilgrims to Jeddah at his own expense, it added. Qatari pilgrims would also be able to pass through two of the kingdom's airports.
Between 2 million and 3 million Muslims from around the world travel to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, for the pilgrimage each year. Every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to undertake it at least once in the lifetime.
Qatar had accused Saudi Arabia of politicizing the pilgrimage and complained to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion last month.
It was not clear how far the opening of the border to pilgrims would go to help heal the worst rift involving U.S-allied Gulf Arab countries for years.
A Qatari government spokesman said Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani had held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before the announcement was made though he did not have a post in the Qatari government.
Sheikh Mohammed, the foreign minister, said the ruling family member had been there on a personal basis.
A Qatari semi-government rights body gave a cautious welcome to the Saudi move. "This is a step toward removing the obstacles and difficulties (Qataris) faced during haj procedures this year," the National Human Rights Committee said in a statement.
Some Qataris said that even with permission to enter Saudi Arabia they would be concerned for their safety.
"I think it is very risky to go to Mecca this year, there could be hate crimes against Qataris," said Fatima al-Mohannadi, a Qatari student.
(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Tom Finn in Doha, Katie Paul in Riyadh, Daniel Dickson and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; writing by Maha El Dahan, Sami Aboudi and Sylvia Westall; editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)