Recurring deaths at Jamaraat and Saudi Arabia’s pitfalls

nasfat-womenSaudi authorities can hardly be faulted on their handling of the two Holy Cities and all the religious facilities therein. The quality of attention accorded the Mosques and other religious sites is impressive.

The unique and outstanding carpeting, exotic wall designs, embellishing decorations, safety-oriented direction of worshippers several scores of giant umbrellas to cater for the need of those who fail to secure a sitting space within the mosque, incessant sanitary exercise, unpunctuated power supply, ubiquitous refuse collectors, hospitable dispositions to pilgrims, uncommon kindness and excessive generosity.

Only Allah can reward the Saudi Government and people enough for their services to Islam through the pilgrims. One can attest to the laborious effort, sleepless nights, selfless contributions and tireless dispositions that grossly characterize the Saudi attitude to Hajj services.

They infact seem to be giving their “all” in their services to the pilgrims.
Although some critics hold that Saudi Government deserves no plaudits for enhancing the quality of Hajj which is “a huge earner after oil, for Saudi Arabia. This thinking finds support in the words of Ziauddeen Sardar, author of “Mecca: The Sacred City”, “We know that oil is going to run out. The Saudis are counting on Hajj to provide income. It’s big business” The central thinking here is that the flock of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia is a gold mine for Saudi businesses.

It is believed that the large Hajj and Umrah market will always affect the sale of Saudi products positively and such sales have been put to about 213 million dollars per Hajj Season. Aside that, revenue generated from both Hajj and Umrah in the last two years (2014 and 2015), according to the respected professor of Hajj Economy, Abdullah Al-Marzoouq of Al-Qurah University in Makkah, has been put at $20 billion per year. However, those who uphold this line of thinking see Hajj as a business venture to the Saudis and not necessarily a religious obligation.

The 2014 Hajj Season had hardly ended when the Saudi Government started its preparation for Hajj 2015 that now turned ostensibly hazardous and arguably perilous. The Minister of Hajj, Dr. Bandar Higar chaired the inaugural meeting on Hajj 2015 at his Jeddah office on the 13th October, 2014 (18th of Dhul-Hijjah, 1435). It was a high powered session attended by directors, consultants and agents of the Ministry as well as heads or chairmen of the various Hajj agencies and service providing bodies. The early commencement of such a preparation was indicative of the Saudi sensitivity to Hajj matters.

Three issues featured prominently at the meeting in question. One was the Minister’s emphasis on the Saudi Government’s preparedness to continue the reduction in the population of pilgrims which was 20% for external pilgrims and 50% for internal pilgrims. Another was the Minister’s remark over the need to prepare an action plan for the following Hajj especially with regard to how to receive pilgrims at various entry points, their transportation and accommodation in Makkah, Madina, the Holy Sanctuaries and Jeddah as well as their grouping for pebble casting at the Jamaraat.

The third issue concerns the Minister’s revelation about strategic plan for the 25 year Hajj and Umrah quality enhancement programme initiated by the Custodian of the Holy Mosques who has charged the Hajj Ministry with the responsibility of preparing a feasibility study thereupon. There obviously was no special attention to the Jamaraat at any stage of the meeting or implementation of its decisions. It was treated like any other aspects of the preparations. Now the question, why must there be a special attention to the Jamaraat in the Saudi preparation for Hajj?

The Guardian editorial of October 14, 2015 seems to have an answer to this question where he states that “stampede-induced tragedies are becoming too commonplace in pilgrimages particularly to Mecca…” The editorial informs that “In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at Mina where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stonewalls…
In 2004, about 244 pilgrims were crushed to death in Mina and hundreds were on the final day of the hajj ceremonies…In 2001, a stampede at Mina…killed 35 hajj pilgrims. In 1998, about 180 pilgrims were trampled to death in panic after several of them fell off an overpass during the final stoning ritual at Mina…In 1994, some 270 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual at Mina. In 1990, the worst hajj-related tragedy claimed the lives of 1, 426 pilgrims in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.”

From 1990 to 2004, the history of Hajj operations in Saudi Arabia was essentially that of spaced and not successive tragedies. For instance, after the deadly and hitherto fatally unprecedented stampede of 1990, the following three years (1991,1992,1993) did not really witness considerable Jamaraat-related loss of lives until 1994 when there was another fatal pebble casting experience. It behooves the Saudi authorities to underscore some of the factors and considerations that made those three Hajj Season comparatively crowd accident-proof.

It may also be of great value for them to study the pattern of their response to the 1997 inferno that has since not recurred, at least, in view of the magnitude of the casualties. Such a pattern may be analysed alongside the nature and dimension of the 1998 Jamaraat fatalities whose pattern was totally different from the 1990 and 1994 experiences.

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