Recurring deaths at Jamaraat and Saudi Arabia’s pitfalls (2)



A cluster analysis of the past accidents may bring about leading revelations and the Saudi authorities may need to explore all investigative possibilities regardless of the rigour involved. For instance, there may be interesting stories and revealing secrets behind the regular occurrence of the Jamaraat fatalities at four year intervals between 1990 and 2002 and at every alternate year thereafter.

It is remarkable that the once-in-two year dimension started when Saudi Arabia claimed to have improved upon its crowd management and crowd control mechanisms. The 2002 Jamaraat crowd crush chaos was recorded on Sunday morning and the outcome was really pathetic. The then Saudi Minister of Hajj, Iyad Madani confirmed the incident but was quick to blame the tragedy on the influx of unregistered pilgrims to the Jamaraat, arguining that as many as about a quarter of a million unlicensed pilgrims from lesser Hajj stayed in the Holy Lands on expired visas, to participate in Hajj thereby putting additional pressure on both space and resources meant to cater for the need of the year’s 1,892,710 pilgrims by increasing such figure by almost 30%. To put a stop to this pattern, both the Saudi Hajj authorities and specific national Hajj Commissions have major role to play in the area of more systematic effective licensing of pilgrims, provision of services to them and their groupings for rituals in a manner that may prove impregnable to possible breaches. After 2002 was 2004 and thereafter was 2006 and yet the Jamaraat and its environs remain the scene of all the earlier tragedies excepting the fire accident of 1975, the Saudi power tussle of 1979, the Iranian protest of 1987, and the Kuwaiti Shiaite rebellion of 1989.

With the incursion of the United Kingdom-based consulting firm, Crowd Dynamics, the year 2004 marked a turning point in the history of crowd management and control at the Jamaraat. The sophisticated crowd managers had been consulting for the Saudi Hajj authorities for few years earlier but the 2004 Jamaraat tragedies may be described as having agitated the minds of the Saudi authorities and stimulated their wander-lust for such services as being provided by the British crowd experts, and now, on a larger scale. There have been three noticeable Jamaraat-related developments since the active involvement of Crowd Dynamics in Hajj preparations and operations. One is the growing nature of the preponderant and sophisticated body of scholarship of Jamaraat Crowd Management and Control.

The second development was a rapid reduction in the annual Jamaraat fatalities. But for the 2006 experience which hitherto brought to a close the incident of live losses at the Jamaraat, one may have been tempted to declare that the crowd experts whose services the Saudi Hajj authorities engaged have successfully made the undesirable tragedies that characterized the pebble casting rituals in recent times, a past tense. The co-founder of CrowdVision, Dr. Anders Johansson was invited to examine the CCTV images of the pilgrims before and during the crush in 2006, and noticed some patterns of behaviours that, spotted early enough, could have prevented it. The following year, his system was installed in Makkah and has since been monitoring the pilgrimage every year. It is noteworthy that since 2007 that Dr. Johansson’s system was installed there was no major Jamaraat tragedy until 2015. While the Saudi Hajj authorities commit huge investment to better infrastructure, planning and technology to assure pilgrim safty, such crowd experts as Crowd Dynamics and CrowdVision and others provide the required expertise like the real-time data and insights for operational decision-making.

However, a crowd scientist, Keith Still who was special adviser on the Hajj from 2001 to 2005 insists that the problem is not all about technology but also that of human capacity. He added that technology installed at the Holy Sanctuaries in 2006 before CrowdVision’s involvement actually contributed to the 2006 tragedy that was later recorded. It cannot be denied that the sophisticated live crowd analysis arrangements put in place after the 2006 tragedies have greatly improved the safety of pilgrims, as noted by Dr. Salim Al-Bosta, a crowd management expert, at the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. No matter how efficacious or sophisticated is a technology, it can only deliver its desired goals when coupled with an effective crowd management plan which was probably missing in the 2015 Jamaraat experience.

According to Al-Bosta, ‘every year, 3 to 4 millions of pilgrims are performing their rituals in the course of high restrictions with a climax of limited/narrow space and time they perform the stoning “stoning of the devil” symbolic ritual on three successive days within 24 hours each day. About 3 million people pass Jamaraat area, with dimensions of about 100m width and 1000m length.” Hence the decision of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs in Saudi Arabia to construct the new five-storey building for the stoning ritual and practice. In another research by Al-Bosta also published in 2011 he describes the aim of the new design of the five-storey Jamaraat as reduction of critical overcrowding and prevention of catastrophic stampedes. Consequently, the pilgrims were provided with a Jamaraat with a multiple accesses points with 12 entrances and 14 exits in order to facilitate the dissemination of the human mass in acceptable flow paths leading to the different five levels in a safe and secure way.

Al-Bosta reveals that “the ground and first floor of Jamaraat serve the pilgrims mass coming from the eastern side (Mina camps) while the second floor is dedicated to cater for the western side (Makkah), whereas the third floor should accommodate the pilgrims coming from the North (Moiesem with the fourth floor serving pilgrims from the southern side (Al-Azizah) (1&2)”. The most salient revelation by Al-Bosta which may provide an additional insight into what really brought about the unprecedented Jamaraat fatalities in 2015, is that the paths for pilgrims’ streams are installed in one-way system as the pedestrian roads with fences and clear signs direct the flow to their dedicated Jamaraat levels and back routes”. It may not be far-fetched to infer the third development by arguing that despite the fact that the Jamaraat received this year barely fifty percent of its carrying capacity, the tragedies occurred owing largely to the disconnect between theory and practice, as evident in the foregoing.
Otherwise, how could another surging crowd of Iranian or Egyptian pilgrims have appeared from the opposite direction? How could a mammoth crowd of pilgrims have attempted to exit the Jamaraat through an entry point? How could there have been a total break-down of order in a setting that is not a lawless society? How also could it have been a tenable excuse that some Black African pilgrims violated the schedule for the Jamaraat? Was there not a mechanism to curtain and contain non-compliance? Was there no management? Was there no control? This is where lies the argument concerning human capacity for crowd control to complement the technology-aided arrangement.

The rigorous research by the British and other crowd experts engaged by Saudi Hajj authorities did not really translate into practice. For Saudi Arabian Government to have gone thus far in investing in crowd management expertise in order to achieve accident-proof hajj speaks volumes about their commitment to serve and protect the lives of their guests. But, paying for scientific studies is one thing, treading the direction of the research is another. Such an unfortunate disconnect is the vogue in Third World Nations, Nigeria inclusive, where research being conducted in the universities do not correlate with the level of development in the larger society. It may be unfair to lump Saudi Arabia and Nigeria together in the same class in this regard. Saudi Arabia, unlike Nigeria, is not really getting it wrong with regard to development. But, the bitter truth is that, the Saudi Hajj authorities erred in 2015, and even in few earlier instances (2008 to 2014) that did not record such a huge number of fatalities. Why?

The answer, to my own mind: No pilgrims’ movement from Makkah to Muna can materialize unless it is facilitated by Saudi Hajj authorities. Similarly, no pilgrims’ movement from Muna to ‘Arafah can materialize unless it is effected by the Saudi Hajj authorities who are also actively involved in pilgrims; transportation to Muzdalifah from where any individual or group of pilgrims can decide to do whatever he likes and move to anywhere he wishes either to return to Muna or advance directly to Jamaraat without any regard for any official schedule, grouping, or time-tabling. So, the Saudi authorities seem to relax their operations Jamaraat until when a major calamity is recorded and they wake quickly from their slumber. This pattern could be noticed in 1991, 1992, and 1993 as well as 1995, 1996, and 1997 (as far as Jamaraat was concerned) and 1999, 2000/2001 accident-free at the Jamaraat. The impact of the 2006 tragedies spurred the Hajj authorities into massive, comprehensive and all-encompassing safety measures that proved efficacious before diminishing returns set in. By 2014, it had become a mantra on the lips of men and women that Hajj had become much safer than it used to be. That was when Jamaraat Safety measures attained their peak, reached their zenith or full capacity and therefore necessitated a renewal, rejuvenation, enhancement, or improvement especially with regard to how and when pilgrims can enter and exit the Jamaraat.

Keith Still, a crowd scientist, argues that “tech firms offered the Saudis new systems and there was an over-reliance on technology. There was lots of digital signage put up to direct the crowds but it was just a mess”.

Saheed Ahmad Rufai Ag. Dean, Faculty of Education Sokoto State University.

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