Critics question Saudi safety focus after hajj tragedy

September 25, 2015

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DUBAI: The worst disaster in 25 years at the annual hajj pilgrimage has left critics questioning the Saudi government’s attention to safety, despite billions of dollars invested in improving conditions.

A stampede on Thursday killed more than 700 people during a stoning ritual attended by hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the world.

It was the second tragedy surrounding this year’s hajj, after an early September crane collapse killed 109 people, including foreigners.

They were the first serious incidents in nine years at the hajj, but critics say they point to flaws in the management of the annual event which attracts about two million people.

Irfan al-Alawi, an outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites, says the problem lies in a lack of crowd control, and the government’s strategy of development.

“Yes, they have tried to improve facilities, but the priority for health and safety always fails” as development takes priority, said Alawi, co-founder of the Makkah-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.

He says development projects are wiping away tangible links to the Prophet Mohammed.

“It’s down to the management,” Alawi said from London when asked the fundamental causes of such tragedies.

Turkey’s religious affairs director said 18 Turks were unaccounted for after the tragedy and blamed “serious management issues” at the holy city.

Saudi Arabia’s Shiite rival Iran also blamed the authorities.

“Today’s incident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims. There is no other explanation. The Saudi officials should be held accountable,” the head of Iran’s hajj organisation, Said Ohadi, told Iranian state television.

Even before Thursday’s tragedy at Mina near Makkah, pilgrims were complaining.

A Sudanese pilgrim in Mina at the time of the incident said it was the most poorly organised of four consecutive hajj he had performed.

“People were already dehydrated and fainting beforehand,” said the pilgrim, adding that they “were tripping all over each other”.

He said his Saudi companion had expressed concern that “something was going to happen”.

On Wednesday, as the hajj peaked on Mount Arafat a few kilometres (miles) from Mina, Yemeni pilgrim Mohammed al-Mikhlafi, 54, complained of “a lack of organisation”.

Tunisian Abu Salim, 58, said: “Transport is bad, our residence is bad, and food is really bad… even though we paid around $4,000 (3,603 euros) to come.”

They don’t have a clue
The interior ministry said it had deployed 100,000 police to secure the hajj, maintain safety and manage traffic and crowds.

They are tasked with protecting around two million people in concentrated areas.

But Alawi said those officers assigned lack language skills and have not been properly trained.

“They don’t have a clue how to engage with these people,” he said.

A Saudi minister blamed the pilgrims themselves, saying they had not followed the rules.

“Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables” set for the hajj, Health Minister Khaled al-Falih told El-Ekhbariya television.

“If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided.”

Thursday’s tragedy occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat Bridge, which was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion and intended to improve safety.

Between 1994 and 2006 there were four earlier stampedes during the stoning ritual, claiming a total of more than 1,000 lives.

Almost one kilometre (less than a mile) long, the Jamarat Bridge allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.

“They should have a system of crowd control of how many people can enter and how many can exit,” Alawi said, suggesting that world-class rugby and football events are better controlled.

Among other infrastructure and safety measures in the past few years is an elevated train for moving pilgrims and fireproof tents to accommodate them in Mina.

In early September, when a crane working on Makkah’s Grand Mosque collapsed in severe winds, pilgrims brushed off the accident.

The crane was one of several helping to expand the mosque by 400,000 square metres (4.3 million square feet), or the equivalent of more than 50 football pitches, to handle increasing numbers of pilgrims.

Analysts said the incident deeply troubled Saudi King Salman, the official custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and prompted surprisingly swift action against the contractor, which was suspended from new government work.

Tragedy was later averted elsewhere in Mecca when two fires broke out in high-rise pilgrim hostels. A total of six pilgrims were injured in two separate fires that forced about 2,500 pilgrims from their accommodation. –AFP