As of 5 a.m. on Friday, most public roads are blocked by military vehicle escorts. This includes the back roads around Bahrain, and is intended to protect civilians as the region gears up for the year’s peak Islamic festivities.
Essentially, at the request of the kingdom’s king, the military has deployed nearly 600 troops to safeguard the event, nicknamed “Masjid Al-Waqf,” or Mosque of the Holy Kaaba. They will then move, and will be joined by an estimated 40,000 other volunteers, for what is expected to be the country’s biggest ever mass prayer. Many roads in Bahrain are closed off and every street is blocked by military vehicles. All hotels in the area have been ordered to turn away guests during the mass prayers.
The event is expected to attract millions of worshippers to the 2.7 square kilometer (1.1 square mile) area where worshippers will face Mecca’s Kaaba on Friday afternoon.
Qais Mushaima, Bahrain’s minister of tourism and a former tourism minister, told Channel 4 News: “It’s a unique opportunity, and it’s on one of the holiest sites for all Muslims, and we’re encouraging people to come, to pray and send blessings to the leaders of the countries… to end the diplomatic and political situation that have made it difficult.”
The 18-day festivities are called Al Majaz, the “6 Day of Renewal.” It typically comes around the end of December, around the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.
This year’s event is designated “Maalah Khorasan” or as the ministry puts it, the “Masjid Al-Waqf Festival.”
The dates have been changed each year in a nod to changing relations with Muslim countries. Al-Waqf means the Holy Kaaba in Arabic.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, since 1989, the “Masjid Al-Waqf Festival” has been hosted in the surroundings of the city’s central Bahrain International Circuit. A national prayer festival was launched two years later, in 1990. Al-Waqf will also be held from July 28 to August 2, 2019.
Al-Waqf celebrations include street and nighttime celebrations, mixed programs, and food. From 1957 to 1969, Bahraini Muslims were briefly expelled from the island by Islamic opponents of the modern kingdom, and the holiday is named in their honor.
In 2006, an outdoor mass camp was held at the site to welcome the Prophet Muhammad in Saudi Arabia. This year, though, Bahrain’s government has decided the celebration is too highly politicized. This year’s event has attracted less focus than previous festivals, mostly because of tensions with Kuwait. Kuwait opposed the visit of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Bahrain in March, when tensions over a Saudi-led blockade of the island reached a new high.
The timing of the military escorts ahead of Friday’s prayer has set tongues wagging that it was the first indication of Bahrain’s decision to bar Kuwaitis from attending the anniversary event, and the move raised more suspicions that a major power was involved.
Kuwaitis have regularly used the al-Waqf as a center for protests, although it has been an occasion for Shiite Muslims in Bahrain to protest and demand the release of dozens of prisoners. The military escorts, however, came as the result of an operation by a supervisory body headed by Bahrain’s king.
Al-Waqf is considered sacred by all Muslims, and a major annual event for the major Shiite communities, including Bahrain, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Other countries were also taking precautions to protect pilgrims. One of the many reasons why Saudi Arabia is pushing pilgrims to conduct the special prayers before their journey to Mecca is the way the desert kingdom’s control of pilgrims’ movements has been the target of protest.
In Saudi Arabia, thousands of troops have been deployed to support security forces in the area leading up to the events. Here, the King’s step is certainly among the most dramatic in recent years to preserve safety.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.