Smooth running of the haj as 1.8 million attend
LONDON - The recently concluded haj season, in which an estimated 1.8 million made the pilgrimage to Mecca in a show of Islamic unity, was a resounding success, according to most accounts, despite efforts by Iran to exploit the annual event in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, reeling from last year’s tragic stampede in which hundreds of people died, worked to ensure this year’s pilgrimage ran smoothly. Officials utilised the latest technologies and put forward new approaches to old problems. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his cabinet oversaw the event.
Ahead of the haj, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched a tirade against the kingdom over 2015’s deadly stampede, which prompted officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to rebuke Tehran, accusing it of trying to politicise the annual Muslim pilgrimage.
“Saudi Arabia firmly rejects that this great ritual is used to achieve political goals or sectarian differences, especially that God has called upon all Muslims to perform pilgrimage without discrimination,” King Salman said.
“Exaggeration (in religion) and extremism are abhorred… When it enters the body of the Muslim nation, it spoils its unity, future and image before the world. There is no salvation from this affliction except to uproot it without mercy and with the unity of Muslims, to destroy this epidemic,” he added.
With safety at the forefront of Saudi authorities’ planning, all pilgrims travelling to Mecca were provided with electronic bracelets that carried information such as medical history and passport numbers.
The Saudi Interior Ministry established an emergency civil defence plan, designed to utilise the kingdom’s domestic defence forces. According to Director-General of Civil Defence Lieutenant-General Suleiman bin Abdullah al-Amr, more than 17,000 officers participated in the security plan, which addressed issues such as “13 probable hazards”, based on scenarios from previous haj seasons.
Also in response to last year’s stampede, the Jamarat area was redesigned and infrastructure expanded for better crowd control. The Haj Ministry introduced a strict timetable for pilgrims to perform the stoning ritual to avoid congestion. Surveillance drones were deployed over Mecca, alerting authorities if help or intervention was needed.
“The haj was extremely well-organised. Every year it gets a little better but this year was a quantum leap,” Saudi journalist and TV news producer Essam al-Ghalib said.
Ghalib, who has covered the annual Islamic gathering since 2002, said he noticed something different this year. “I was very impressed with the soldiers and security personnel. Everybody had a smile on their face and were helpful and careful when interacting with pilgrims,” he said. “They weren’t shouting at people like I’ve seen in previous years. It appears that they have had some training of how to deal with the public.”
Ghalib said this year’s planning resulted in less crowding, adding that, besides being the most organised haj, there was also a palpable sense of camaraderie.
“The king was there overseeing things and all government ministers were there. You could see the minister of Health in his medical garb helping out the pilgrims,” he added.
On Twitter, the Saudi population’s preferred platform of expression, users attributed the success of the haj to a lack of an Iranian presence.
“Iran was absent and so incidents [in the haj] were absent. The Muslims were able to carry out the haj safely and securely, which proves that they are behind every incident,” Jeddah-based Fatima Baumar posted on Twitter.
Zahra al-Jahshi, a Qatif-based Saudi-national who says she is Shia, tweeted; “Iran’s absence from the haj and there not being a stampede is further proof that the latest Mina [2015 stampede] incident was planned by Iran.”
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 dependents.