Saudi Arabia

Saudi stampede

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Thousands of tents put up for the Hajj in Mina, on Mecca's outskirts, on September 19, before the pilgrimage began. Photo: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

This September 21 photograph taken with a slow shutter speed shows pilgrims performing Tawaf, an anti-clockwise movement around the Kaaba, which is one of the main rites of the Hajj. Photo: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

Some of victims of the stampede in Mina on September 24. Photo: AFP

In the city of Sa'ada, Yemen, which has come under bombardment by the Saudi-led military coalition, on September 7. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Saudi Arabia, which has already been criticised for the brutal bombing of Yemen, comes under increasing pressure from various nations and organisations in the wake of the tragic stampede during the Hajj season.

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

The tragic events that occurred recently 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 after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. There were few recorded accidents during the Hajj in Ottoman 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.

In the second week of September, before this year’s Hajj pilgrimage started, a massive crane collapsed in Mecca and killed more than 120 people, most of them foreigners. Indian nationals were among those who perished. Around the same time, hotel fires killed some pilgrims who had assembled in the city in preparation for the Hajj. As on previous occasions, the Saudi authorities were slow in apportioning blame for the accidents. It was not that the Saudi authorities were not forewarned. The government had announced that it was deploying 100,000 security personnel to secure the area where pilgrims gathered.

Every year, two million people from more than 180 countries make the pilgrimage. Many governments in the region have been complaining that the Saudis are inefficient in their handling of this huge tide of pilgrims, a large number of whom are from Iran, India, Pakistan and Indonesia, countries with the largest Muslim populations. Most of the pilgrims are not conversant in Arabic, while the Saudi police and security personnel speak only Arabic. In 1990, 1,500 pilgrims died in a stampede inside a tunnel linking Mecca and Medina. In 2006, a stampede on a bridge that was identified as a dangerous choke point killed more than 360 people. But the stampede on September 24 this year, according to reports, was by far the worst experienced during the Hajj season.

In the list of the dead the Saudi authorities put out, they seem to have understated the numbers of those who died. Iranians topped the casualty list. Iranian state television reported that 464 Iranian pilgrims perished. The government in Tehran said that more than a thousand Iranian nationals who had gone to undertake the Hajj were unaccounted for. The head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organisation said that he expected the toll to rise above 1,500. The Saudi authorities are still sticking to the figure of 700 casualties. For Iran, the death toll is the biggest humanitarian disaster since the earthquake in 2005, which killed more than 600 people. Pakistan and Indonesia also suggested that the Saudi authorities had not been completely upfront about the real casualty figures. More than 20 countries have reported that their citizens have been killed in the stampede. At least 45 Indians perished; 83 Egyptians, 64 Nigerians and 59 Indonesians are among those killed.

‘Virtue’ to die

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. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that the Hajj tragedy reflected the “malfunction in the administration”. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was more forthright in his criticism, saying that the incident “was proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season”. The Saudi authorities claim that the fault was not theirs and have instead blamed the unruly behaviour of pilgrims and “God’s will” for the disaster. Devout Muslims believe that dying while participating in the Hajj ensures one a 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 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 Mina, which is around five kilometres from Mecca. Previous accidents also occurred around this stretch. Instead of widening the road, the Saudi authorities allotted land to real estate developers, and luxury hotels were developed in the area, including the world’s largest hotel, where wealthy pilgrims can enjoy a view of Mecca during their stay. Madawi al Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics, told The New York Times that members of the Saudi royal family have profited handsomely from 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.”

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been going downhill since the Saudis launched a war and ground invasion in Yemen. The Saudis have been at the forefront of the efforts to overthrow the secular regime in Syria and had sided with Israel in opposing the United States-Iran nuclear deal. The delay in repatriating the bodies of Iranians and other foreigners killed in the stampede has further exacerbated tensions between the two countries. Iran and Indonesia have officially complained about Saudi Arabia’s uncooperative attitude after 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 Iranians. Iranians have been demonstrating daily outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran demanding full accountability and the speedy return of the bodies. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, was extremely critical of the Saudi handling of the disaster and demanded that it be “fully investigated”.

Attacks on Yemen

Even as the controversy surrounding the Hajj stampede is raging, there is no let-up in the attacks on Yemen. In the last week of September, Saudi planes targeted a wedding party, killing 131 civilians, including 80 women, in the Red Sea port city of Mocha. It has been described as the deadliest massacre of civilians so far in the military campaign. The U.N. condemned the killings. The Saudis are in complete control of Yemeni airspace and are able to use their Western-supplied munitions at will against a defenceless population. The U.N. estimates that around 3,000 civilians have been killed since the attacks started in March.

There were half-hearted attempts to censure the Saudis in the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In the last week of September, the Netherlands decided not to put forward a resolution calling for U.N. investigators to be immediately dispatched to Yemen to look into the conduct of the war there. The Dutch draft resolution had 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 U.N. mandate. The West is complicit in this illegal war.

Saudi Arabian envoy to chair UNHRC

The U.S., France and the United Kingdom put pressure on the Netherlands to withdraw its 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 U.K. that helped Saudi Arabia get elected to the UNHRC board. For many in the region and beyond, insult was added to injury after the Saudi Arabian envoy was elected Chairman of the UNHRC 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 U.N. jobs pertaining to human rights. The appointment came even as human rights activists from across the world were highlighting the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a 21-year-old Saudi national who has been sentenced to death by beheading. The young man was given the death sentence when he was all of 17. 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.