Saudi Arabia prepares to tackle haj security, logistics
London - With more than 900,000 pilgrims already in Saudi Arabia and more than 2 million Muslim devotees from 183 different countries set to participate in this year’s haj, the kingdom is facing security, logistical and health challenges.
Saudi Arabia has been on high alert during the haj since 1987 when pilgrims from Iran politicised the event by staging a demonstration against the United States and Israel. The resulting clashes with Saudi authorities caused 400 deaths.
In 2015, another security threat is the possibility of an attack by the Islamic State (ISIS), which security analysts say might target Muslim minorities at the pilgrimage. “Security forces will act swiftly and decisively with any violations of laws and instructions related to haj,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Mansour al- Turki.
Turki stressed that specially trained forces were protecting the holy sites and a large number of additional security forces would be deployed to ensure pilgrims’ “security and safety”, while also managing the human traffic associated with the haj. The kingdom has set up a complex video surveillance system over the holy city, with security helicopters monitoring the situation from above.
In early September, the kingdom’s Civil Defence forces stationed 15,120 security personnel across the holy city, which includes the grand mosque and the haj holy sites set to be visited by Muslim pilgrims.
Ahead of the haj, a serious outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus sparked concern, with a number of countries issuing health warnings to prospective visitors to the kingdom. The recent report of 18 new cases in the kingdom pushed the total number of those afflicted to 158 since late July.
A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that the number of hospitalised patients infected with the virus in Saudi Arabia and Jordan is growing. In Jordan, MERS-related cases have been reported in recent weeks, leading to fears that returning pilgrims could infect more people.
A Jordanian Health Ministry official said the country has recorded 11 MERS cases, with five fatalities related to the virus.
“The index patient in the cluster is a 60-year-old man who got sick at the end of July after travelling from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Amman. He sought treatment at two different hospitals before his infection was detected,” Mohammad Abdullat, director of the ministry’s Communicable Disease Control Department, told The Arab Weekly.
“We learned from South Korea that one person can infect more than 100 people,” Abdullat warned. “No country is protected from this so the most important thing is to be aware, watch for the signs and try to isolate and contain the virus and not let it spread, because then we will really have big problems.”
Saudi Health Minister Khalid al- Falih said authorities have “prepared a comprehensive preventive plan starting from entry points, to haj sites, until the pilgrims return home”. The Health Ministry, he said, has “dedicated all its efforts to prevent any infectious disease from spreading in the kingdom”.
According to WHO, the number of Saudi MERS-CoV cases is 1,517, including at least 539 deaths since 2012.
The MERS-CoV is believed to originate in camels, which led to a ban by the Saudi Health Ministry on slaughtering the animals during the haj. Faisal al-Zahrani, spokesman for the ministry, said the ban is kingdom-wide, and said the kingdom’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Asheikh, had issued a fatwa supporting the ban to protect pilgrims.
On September 11th, more than 100 people were killed when a crane collapsed in high winds and crashed onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a stampede in Mina, near Mecca.