November 15, 2015

The Hajj Stampede: Saudi Impertinence

Yohannan Chemarapally

SAUDI Arabia's domestic and foreign policies are both coming under critical international scrutiny. Even domestic voices of dissent are getting louder as the new royal dispensation carries on with its relentless targeting of Yemen and the encouragement of a sectarian agenda in the region. The Saudi imposed war on Yemen has been going on for five months. The infrastructure of the Arab world's poorest county has been destroyed and it is the civilian populace which has borne the brunt. The Saudi led coalition comprising mainly of fellow Gulf monarchies has however been unable to deliver the decisive blow to the Yemeni forces which still control the capital and most of the major cities.

The recent tragic events that occurred during the annual Hajj pilgrimage season have only added to the mounting criticism of the Saudi government under the new monarch, King Salman. The Saudi King also has the title of the “custodian of the two holy mosques” of Mecca and Medina, the most important pilgrimage destinations for Muslims. This title was bestowed on the Saudi King only after the demise of the Ottoman empire. There were few recorded accidents when the Hajj was managed in those days. After the spate of serious accidents that have occurred since then many Muslims want other major Islamic nations to have a say in the running of the Hajj to make it less disaster prone.

Before this year's Hajj pilgrimage started, the collapse of a massive crane in the holy city of Mecca in the second week of September killed more than 120 people, most of them foreigners. Among those who perished were Indian nationals. Hotel fires around the same time had killed some more pilgrims who had assembled in the city in preparation for the Hajj. As on previous occasions, the Saudi authorities were slow in apportioning the blame for the accident. Stampedes in the past had claimed thousands of lives. It was not that the Saudi authorities were not forewarned. The Saudi government had announced that it was deploying 100,000 security personnel to secure the area where the pilgrims gather this year.

Many governments in the region have been openly complaining that the Saudis have been inefficient in their handling of the huge tide of pilgrims who come for the annual pilgrimage. Every year, two million people from more than 180 countries make the annual Hajj pilgrimage. A large number of them are from Iran, India, Pakistan and Indonesia, the countries having the largest Muslim populations. Most of the pilgrims who come for Hajj are not conversant in Arabic. The Saudi police and security personnel only speak Arabic. In 2006, a stampede on a bridge which was identified as a dangerous choke point, killed more than 360 people. In 1990, 1500 pilgrims died in a stampede inside a tunnel linking Mecca and Medina. But the stampede on October 26 this year, according to reports, was by far the worst experienced during the Hajj season. The list of the dead that was put out by the Saudi authorities seems to have understated the numbers of those who actually died in the stampede.

Iranians topped the casualty list. The government in Teheran has said that more than a thousand Iranian nationals who had gone to undertake the Hajj are unaccounted for. The head of Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organisation said that they expect the toll to rise above 1500. The Saudi authorities are still sticking to the figure of 700 casualties. They claim that the fault was not theirs and have instead blamed the unruly behaviour of the hapless pilgrims and “god's will” for the disaster. Devout Muslims believe that dying while participating in the Hajj ensures an automatic place in heaven. While reporting on the tragic event, Saudi television anchors reminded their audience that it was a “virtue” to die while performing the Hajj. Some senior Saudi officials belonging to the royalty, tried to put the blame for the tragedy on specific groups. One Saudi prince, Khaled al Faisal, the head of the Hajj Committee, went to the extent of blaming “some pilgrims from African nationalities” for the disaster. Another member of the royal family, Khalid al Saud, blamed Iranian pilgrims for disorderly behaviour and suggested that they should be banned in the future from participating in the Hajj.   




The stampede occurred on the narrow streets of Minna which is around 5 km from Mecca. Previous accidents have also occurred around this stretch. The Saudi authorities, instead of widening the road, had allotted land to real estate developers. Luxury hotels, including the world's largest hotel, were developed in the area, where wealthy pilgrims could stay, enjoying the view of the holy city of Mecca. Irfan al Alawi, an executive director of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, said that the stampede was the “result of poor management” by the Saudi authorities. Madawi al Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist in the London School of Economics, told the NYT that members of the Saudi royal family have profited handsomely in the real estate development around the two holy cities. Saudi Arabia earns around $8.5 billion each year from the Hajj.  “The renovation and expansion are done under the pretext of creating more space for Muslim pilgrims, but it masks land grabs and vast amounts of money being made by the princes and by other Saudis”, she said. “There is no accountability”.

Officials in Teheran stated in the first week of October that the numbers of Iranians killed in the stampede is double than earlier reported. Iranian state TV reported that 464 pilgrims have perished. Pakistan and Indonesia are other countries that have been suggesting that the Saudi authorities have not been completely upfront about the real casualty figures. For Iran, the death toll is the biggest humanitarian disaster since the earthquake in 2005 which killed more than 600 people. The delay in repatriating the bodies of Iranians and other foreigners who died in the stampede has further exacerbated the tensions between the two countries.

Relations between the two countries have been going further downhill after the Saudis launched a war and a ground invasion in Yemen. The Saudis have been in the forefront in the efforts to overthrow the secular regime in Syria and had sided with Israel in opposing the US-Iran nuclear deal. Iran and Indonesia have officially complained about Saudi Arabia's uncooperative attitude following the stampede. They say that their diplomats were given access to victims of the stampede only after many days. Among the prominent Iranians who died in the stampede was the country's former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has warned of “harsh consequences” if the Saudi authorities refuse to repatriate the bodies of the dead Iranians. Iranians have been demonstrating daily outside the Saudi embassy in Teheran demanding full accountability and the speedy return of the bodies of those who died in the stampede. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during his speech in the UN General Assembly, was extremely critical of the Saudi handling of the disaster and demanded that it be “fully investigated”. More than 20 countries have reported that their citizens have been killed in the stampede. At least 45 Indians perished in the stampede. 83 Egyptians, 64 Nigerians and 59 Indonesians were also among those killed.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah said that the Hajj tragedy reflected the “malfunction in the administration”. The former Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al Malki, was more forthright in his criticism. He said that the incident “was proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season”.




Meanwhile even as the controversy surrounding the Hajj stampede is raging, there is no let up in the Saudi led attacks on Yemen. In the last week of September, Saudi planes targeted a wedding party killing 131 civilians in the Red Sea port city of Mocha. It has been described as the deadliest massacre of civilians so far in the six month long military campaign in Yemen. 80 women were among those killed. The UN has condemned the killings. The spokesman for the UN secretary general said that targeting civilians intentionally is considered a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The Saudis are in complete control of Yemeni airspace and are able to use their western supplied munitions at will against a defenseless population. The UN estimates that around 3000 civilians have been killed since the attacks started in March this year.

There have been half hearted attempts to censure the Saudis in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In the last week of September, the Netherlands decided not to put forward a resolution calling for UN investigators to be immediately dispatched to Yemen to look into the conduct of the war there. The Dutch draft resolution had also called for the lifting of the blockade on Yemeni ports by the western navies so that humanitarian relief could be rushed in. But the Europeans caved in to Saudi pressure and withdrew the resolution that had called for an independent inquiry into the carnage in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen without a UN mandate. The West has been complicit in this illegal war.

The United States, France and the UK put pressure on the Dutch to withdraw their resolution and instead got a Saudi backed resolution that omitted any reference to an international inquiry, passed. British newspapers have reported that there was a “secret deal” with the UK that helped Saudi Arabia to get elected to the UNHRC Board. For many in the region and beyond, insult has been added to injury, after Saudi Arabian envoy was elected as chairman of the UNHCR panel of independent experts last month. As head of the five member panel, the Saudi ambassador will play a key role in selecting applicants for UN jobs pertaining to human rights. The appointment came even as human rights activists from across the world are highlighting the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a 21 year old Saudi national, sentenced to death by beheading. The young man was given the death sentence when he was all of seventeen. Among the major charges against him was that he participated in a demonstration against the government.  Saudi Arabia has executed 110 people by beheading so far this year alone.