Saudi Arabia’s Ability to Manage Hajj in Question

Two back-to-back tragedies in September this year have put a huge question mark over Saudi Arabia’s preparedness to host the biggest congregation of Muslims during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

A construction crane crashed through the roof of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on September 11 as the city was preparing to welcome the faithful, killing 107 people and injuring more than 200. As many as 769 pilgrims lost their lives and 934 were injured in the second incident on September 24 in a stampede when pilgrims were engaged in the Stoning of the Devil, a Hajj ritual of flinging pebbles at three walls, known as Jamarat in Mina.

Reports and eye witness accounts suggested that poor crowd control measures resulted in the stampede, the worst to hit the holy city in a quarter century. Iran lost the most number of citizens — 155 and still counting. Little wonder, then, that the Shiite State began to train its guns on Sunni Saudi Arabia for failing to deploy enough security personnel to guide and control the pilgrims. It even raised the issue at the United Nations. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani caught the audience by surprise when he demanded an investigation into the Hajj crush at the UN Summit on Global Development Goals. Till date, 45 Indians have been declared dead, and efforts are on to find the missing.

The twin tragedies have triggered emotion-filled reactions from the Muslim world, including the Gulf countries, which are now clamouring for setting up a unified body with representatives from all the countries to manage the pilgrimage. At present, Saudi Arabia solely controls the event as the holy sites of Mecca and Medina fall under its geographical territory.

Let’s look into some of the common issues faced by the pilgrims. Narratives of those who have performed it often describe the difficult stages during the spiritual journey. A majority of them may refrain from complaining about the organisational shortcoming of the host country. For, they seemed to be happy to get the opportunity to visit the holy cities and fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam. According to Islam, it is obligatory for any Muslim who has the physical and financial ability to perform Hajj at some point in their life.

However, it is a known fact that language is a major problem for the pilgrims. It is indeed a huge challenge to devise communication strategies for millions of pilgrims who speak 170 different languages. To make matters worse, the Saudi security personnel speak only Arabic and it turns out to be a big impediment while controlling the crowd during emergency.

Pilgrims from India face very few issues thanks to the presence of volunteers from state Hajj committees. It’s a tough job, since one volunteer takes care of a group of 300 to 400 people. A Kerala State employee, who served as a Hajj volunteer three times in last 10 years, claimed that political recruitment has brought down the quality of volunteers over the last few years. The other big difficulty is the long walk to reach Mina at the allotted time. “If you cannot keep pace with the group members, there is every possibility of getting lost in the crowd,” a Hajj pilgrim had told this writer last year.

hajj-crowds

At the same time, it is important to note that Saudi Arabia has been spending millions of dollars to spruce up the facilities and avoid tragedies. In 2006, it had constructed three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-storey bridge nearby where pilgrims can toss stones in Mina.

The two incidents have proved that infrastructure development alone cannot stop tragedies. That is why countries have urged Saudi Arabia to seriously think about organising the event with the involvement of all nations.

In such a scenario, Saudi could request trained volunteers or military personnel from different countries to control the pilgrims. Such an initiative could help bring down linguistic barriers too. Imagine Indian police personnel guiding the Indian contingent, and a team from Pakistan helping the pilgrims from their country.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah was the first one to demand that the pilgrimage should be supervised by a committee. But the moot question is: will Saudi Arabia heed to the demand from its political opponent? Saudi rulers should remember that Nasarallah is not the only one to raise such a demand. The sentiment is quiet palpable all around the world. Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper wrote an editorial demanding the constitution of a common platform to organise the Hajj. “The Hajj is an event for all Muslims, and yet Saudi Arabia claims the sole right to organise it, purely on the grounds of geography. The Saudi regime is barely a century old; it has no innate right to lord over this global event. The Muslim community should work towards achieving a collective responsibility for organising Hajj to avoid such a disaster in the future,” read the editorial.

Dr Saleh Al Fahdi, a renowned religious scholar, poet and writer in the Arab world who is based in the Sultanate of Oman, said that Saudi Arabia could share the responsibility of organising Islamic rituals with the help of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC). A committee should be set up to provide technical and design ideas to manage such a big event. Such collective efforts can make Hajj safer. The onus is now on Riyadh to initiate concrete steps to ensure incident-free pilgrimage every year.

(The writer is a journalist, based in Oman.)

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