Security dominates Saudi preparations for haj

Sunday 28/08/2016
Pakistani haj pilgrims queueing to embark onto a bus in Islamabad

RIYADH - Preparations for the largest Islamic gathering — the haj — are in place, Saudi authorities said, with an estimated 1.5 million pil­grims expected to perform what is one of the pillars of Islam.

Pilgrims from all over the world have been travelling to Saudi Ara­bia in recent weeks; however the spectre of 2016’s tragic stampede looms on people’s minds.

Last year’s haj was the site of a number of incidents, including a stampede that, the Saudi govern­ment said, caused the death of more than 700 pilgrims (independ­ent sources placed the death toll at more than 2,000).

Two weeks before the start of last year’s haj, a crane in the grand mosque in Mecca collapsed during heavy winds, killing 107 people. Two government officials and ex­ecutives from the Saudi Binladin Group construction firm are among those on trial on charges related to the crane incident.

A leaked memo from a consul­tancy firm to the Binladen Group preceding the accident in Mecca revealed that the construction firm had been warned about unsecured cranes at the grand mosque.

The memo, obtained by the Sau­di daily Okaz, which has strong ties to the Interior Ministry, warned of a lack of monitoring and negligence. The memo said the crane system within the grand mosque posed a huge safety risk and that condi­tions, if unchanged, set up a high probability of an accident.

With safety at the forefront of Saudi authorities’ planning and as preparations and services contin­ue to become more e-friendly, the Saudi government is, for the first time, providing all pilgrims travel­ling to Mecca with electronic brace­lets.

According to the official Saudi press agency, the e-bracelets will carry information, including the pilgrim’s medical history and per­sonal information, such as the wearer’s passport number. The bracelets have important address­es, prayer times and the location of multi-lingual help desks in the holy city.

The bracelets are part of the king­dom’s overall haj security strategy, as each can be accessed by Interior Ministry via global positioning sys­tems (GPS).

The stampede and the crane ac­cident in 2015 exasperated tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Af­ter the kingdom’s mission in Teh­ran was attacked by a mob over the execution of a radical Shia preacher in Saudi Arabia at the start of this year, the kingdom insisted that Ira­nian pilgrims obtain visas from a third country, because it no longer had a diplomatic presence in the country.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir said in an interview in May that the government in Tehran re­fused to sign a memorandum stat­ing its pilgrims would not stage demonstrations during the haj, so as not to politicise a spiritual event. Jubeir said Iran also refused to meet that condition.

“Iran refused to sign the memo­randum and was practically de­manding the right to hold dem­onstrations and to have other advantages… that would create chaos during haj, which is not ac­ceptable,” Jubeir said.

As a result, no Iranian pilgrims will be participating in this year’s haj, for the first time since 1988 when Iran boycotted the pilgrim­age for a three-year period.

The Saudi Interior Ministry has established an emergency civil de­fence plan, designed to utilise the kingdom’s regional defence forces. According to Director-General of Civil Defence Lieutenant-General Suleiman bin Abdullah al-Amr, more than 17,000 officers are to participate in the security plan, which aims to tackle security is­sues including, “13 probable haz­ards”, based on scenarios in previ­ous haj seasons.

The haj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is a ritual Muslims should perform at least once. A pilgrim must be an adult Muslim with a sound mind and physical ability to perform the rituals. The worshipper must have the financial resources to make the pilgrimage and provide for their dependants.

Muslims believe that success­fully completing the haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calen­dar, gives the worshipper a place in paradise.