Preventing the Hajj Tragedy: Saudi Responsibilities

Category: Life & Society, Middle East Topics: Hajj Values: Responsibility Views: 6260

The tragic deaths of 250 hajjis [pilgrims] due to stampede at the Jamarat [temptation-stoning] site at this years Hajj and the previous accidents that have occurred require a serious analysis. We must ask why they perished and what can be done to prevent such unfortunate deaths in future. 

Based on what I observed and experienced when performing the Hajj in 2002, I would like to identify some key problems with the Saudi Hajj management and provide some suggestions for improvement.

Although the Saudi authorities have done a lot to improve the logistics of Hajj, I still believe that they are accountable for the death of the hajjis. The Saudi authorities need to take full responsibility for the stampede and admit their mistakes instead of shifting the blame to fate. 

First of all, the Saudi authorities have little or no control over the "infiltration" of a colossal number of Saudi citizens and residents who perform Hajj almost every year without authorization. During the Hajj in 2002, I met several Saudi citizens and residents who mentioned that they had been performing Hajj every year for the past 10 to 17 years.

In 2002, I saw a few policemen announce instructions over loudspeakers that people could not either hear or understand in the crowd. Following a stampede in which dozens of pilgrims died the first day of stone throwing, the Saudi police formed a human chain allowing trickles of people into the Jamarat site. Even after this, I believe few people died in a stampede that year.

As I saw in 2002, no special passageways were created for emergency vehicles to rush in or out of the Jamarat site. If people felt sick or happened to get caught in a stampede, they could expect help only from God. Emergency vehicles could not rush to the site because pilgrims overcrowded all streets leading to site. I believe that this situation has not changed even until today.

In fact, I didn't see any lanes reserved for the movement of emergency vehicles along several roads linking Makkah and the other Hajj sites [Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah]. When thousands of buses started moving from one site to another, they clogged the roads within a few minutes and filled the air with exhaust fumes. It took us approximately six hours to move a few kilometers from Mina to Arafat, where we were to spend the whole day praying. At Arafat, I witnessed a scene of confusion as the buses haphazardly jammed the roads. It was extremely hard for people to make way to their tents. By the time we crisscrossed the buses and reached our tents, more than half the day had passed.

At the end of the day however, getting from Arafat to Muzdalifah was relatively easy for us, although I am not sure how it was like for others.

After midnight, my Hajj group's bus left me behind in Muzdalifah in a rush to avoid traffic. As I walked later in the night from Muzdalifah to my tent in Mina, I tried to hail many buses to give me a ride but none stopped. I ended up seeking the help of the Hajj volunteers on the road, but they also failed in trying to convince a bus to stop to pick me up. Finally, after walking for approximately two and a half kilometers, I managed to get into a ramshackle bus. After moving a few hundred yards, that bus came to a halt because of the traffic jam, and in the end I ended up walking to Mina.

The next day, it took my friend and me approximately five hours to travel by car and some seven or eight kilometers from Makkah to Mina. After spending three and a half hours on the way to Mina, we tried to walk but found it extremely difficult, as there was no designated walkway. Finally we managed to rent a minivan. After moving a small distance the minivan took a detour to Muzdalifah, where it came to a complete stop behind buses that were emitting strong exhaust fumes. Finally, my friend and I ended up walking again from Muzdalifah to Mina.

On the way, we found several ambulances on call, but they could barely move forward in the traffic jam. One ambulance driver desperately tried to cross the island in the middle of the road but got stuck. As my friend looked on, I joined a number of people who lifted the ambulance on to the other side of the road, allowing it to go against light moving traffic.

At the Ka'aba, too, it was go-as-you-please chaos; there was no crowd control or direction for pilgrims to move in an orderly fashion. Around the Ka'aba, the streets are extremely narrow for the sea of people who came to pray and do tawaf [circling the Ka'aba]..

In several of the hotels winning the elevator contest requires a high degree of skill and patience. The hotels are either ill equipped with the number of elevators or the ones they have are in poor working condition. I believe no responsible authority would allow these elevators to operate in such conditions.

Earlier, when I arrived at the Hajj terminal with a group of pilgrims from United Arab Emirates, where I was a visiting professor at a university for the academic year, I was surprised to see the dysfunctional procedures at the airport. While I did not expect any special treatment because my group sponsors were well connected to the Saudi Hajj managers, I was surprised to see that we had to wait approximately six hours in the room where we disembarked from the plane and three more hours outside in the camp before being allowed to move on to Medina. The toilets adjacent to the waiting room were broken and dirty as if they hadn't been cleaned for ages. The toilets outside in the towering tents were equally unclean.

At the check-in counters, only three uniformed men were keying in passport records of approximately a thousand people, one at a time. No scanning devices were attached to their computers. The security officials were lining us up, allowing two or three people to come out at a time while my co-travelers were growing impatient, trying to push hard in the lines from behind. On the way out of the waiting room, eleven different security officials checked my passport, one after another, making me feel like a criminal when I was coming for this blessed journey of a lifetime.

This is just a brief outline of the experience that the pilgrims go through while performing the Hajj. They endure such hardship out of a deep faith in God, as part of the experience of performing the Hajj.

With such an experience I am forced to question whether the Saudi authorities actually care about the pilgrims at all or are just there to take advantage of the people coming for the Hajj. The Saudis definitely benefit from the billions of dollars the pilgrims pump into their economy every year, but they don't do enough to see to their welfare. There is no doubt that they have done a lot, but compared to the technology and know-how that is available today, their current Hajj management is extremely unacceptable. 

Approximately 10 years ago, a prominent American Muslim had an experience of the Hajj similar to what I have described above. He then wrote to the Saudi government and the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., suggesting that they install a subway system connecting the Hajj sites, expand the precincts of the Ka'aba, and train their security workers in the way of manners. 

The subway system coupled with controlled entry limits for the resident Saudi pilgrims would solve the traffic problem of the pilgrims. Subway trains have solved the mass transportation problems in European or American cities and airports. In 2002, I asked some Saudis why subway trains were not available for the hajjis. They replied saying that they couldn't answer me but did speculate a reason that made sense to me - that a subway system would put the bus services owned by the Saudi businessmen and princes out of business. 

It baffles me that the Saudis are keen on rescuing ailing European and American companies with their fortunes, but they would block an infrastructure development that would benefit Muslims who perform the Hajj and the Umrah [rites of visit at the Ka'aba any time during the year]. They could still generate profit by investing in a project for expanding the precincts of the Ka'aba and building underground railways connecting the Hajj sites.

All that is needed on the part of the Saudi authorities is to realize and act on the premise that Muslims come from all corners of the world to spend the savings of their lifetime providing lifeblood for the Saudi economy. They deserve better treatment-treatment that doesn't result in their being trampled to death or fumigated by the gases released by buses in transit. 

I am happy to note that the Saudi government has now appointed a commission to recommend a plan for the development of the Hajj sites. The Saudi government should recruit international Muslim experts for the commission so it can develop better, creative, high-tech solutions to the Hajj problems, and the commission should open its report to international public debate before finalizing the recommendations, allowing other Muslim experts to share their ideas and critiques. Global Muslims have stakes in the development of the Hajj sites, and their possible contributions should not be ignored.

In the end, the Saudi government must promptly implement of the recommendations of the commission to prevent any unfortunate death of pilgrims. In the absence of a rapid implementation of a well-studied development plan, the current commission will go down in history as a public relations ploy of the Saudi government to offset criticism of their failed Hajj management.

 

Mohammad A. Auwal is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles


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  21 Comments   Comment

  1. kamarudin from malaysia

    I think OIC should contribute a certain percentage of their GDP to the Saudi govt. to complement and assist in upgrading the infrastructure of Mecca and Medina especially in the development of efficient transportation system to avoid the situation becoming more chaotic in years to come. There is a pressing need to do something to this important aspect.This is a real "Jihad" for the Muslim coomunity all over the world to improve the conditions of the pilgrimage. If the Saudi govt. is reluctant to act fast, I am afraid its credibility to manage the two holy cities is at stake.

  2. Mohamed from USA

    I agree.I made Hajj in 1999 and 2004, the thought of repeating it depresses me. There is a dyer need for undergourd transportation. The treatment in airpors was 8th century level of sofistication. Why shoul eac Jamarat be a SINGLE pillar, reachable only on 2 levels and not more. Why is n't there emergency hellicopters, the 4 days of the ramii.

  3. Hajj from Canada

    Majority of the "downfalls" of Hajj occur NOT because of structural inadequacies or management, but because of the people.

    Why? Many - if not most - of the people do not follow the Sunnah in performing their rites or otherwise. They endanger themselves & others by this. Those going to the extreme - which the Sunnah is not - made situations crazy. People were hurt or offended because of other people who had no regard for anyone but themselves, their family, or their group.

    The deaths in the jamarat happened because people went to ritual in large groups, and they stampeded anyone in their way.

    People spit, sit, eat, sleep & throw their trash, etc where they want! Signs & annoucements don't matter if people don't listen & ignore them. Somehow I could hear annoucements clearly in my language & others but most people didn't NOT hear them. They were not listening.

    People pass a huge sign at the Jamrat telling when & where to go or not go to do the opposite! Officers sometimes would block the way and people would fuss and fight trying to get through. Even the fact that people died in a morning stampede when the Sunnah is to go from midnoon to night!

    Somehow, I was able to find trashcans when needed & the cleaning personnel was abundant, but yet the sites were filthy. Why? The majority decided to throw their trash wherever they were ESPECIALLY where free gift boxes or other items were given!

    Ambulances can't get through because people don't move. Even places reserved for emergencies, people parked in or slept in. What are they going to do? Arrest the Hajjis? Tow a group's bus? Talk about more havoc!

    Some complaints you will never get around as long as the Kingdom continues to allow millions to come in to perform this duty.

    No matter how many changes, if the people don't take responsibility for their actions & look out for their fellow pilgrims & FOLLOW THE SUNNAH, the same story will continue to be told.

  4. O. Jubandang from USA

    I agree with the article that Saudis are to blame for this fiasco. What apalls me most, is how the pathetic Saudi government tried to cleanse themselves of the blame. I have written a letter about this to the editors of the Arab News (a Saudi newspaper) but guess what - the Saudis never published it.

    After the incident the Pilgrimage Affairs and Endowments Minister Iyad bin Amin Madani said: "We believe that most of the dead are from among illegal pilgrims.... Almost all those who (were not registerd) were from Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan and Nigera." (source Gulf News: Title 244 pilgrims trampled to death on Mina Bridge)

    Can you believe the audacity of this idiotic minister. First he blatently calls pilgrims "illegal". Tell me how can a visitor to the house of Allah be illegal. Second, he somehow manages to identify these peoples as citizens of countries other than Saudis as the ones responsible actually responsible for these deaths. As if Saudis are a bunch of saints! Please note that the autor points out that there are numerous Saudis who perform Hajj without permit as if they own Mecca and Medina. The funny thing is, if the British had included neighboring Yemen as part of Saudi Arabia, then even the Yemenis could perform Hajj without permit. Or if the Brits had made Mecca into a separate country then even the Saudis would need a permit or visa. My point, is no country, including the Saudis can claim hegomony over the Muslim holy land. As such, everbody, including the Saudis need to get permits to control the amount of Muslims trying to do Hajj.

    Muslims need to tell the damn Saudis that they don't own Islam. Islam is not a commodity. Also, while Muslims convince the Saudis of this, plase somebody shut up that damn moronic minister Iyad.

  5. Zinedine from Morocco

    Jazaka Allahu khairan Professor Mohammad Auwal

    Assalaamu alaikum wa rahmatul Allahi wa barakatuh,

    I agree totally with you but would like to quickly correct your Arabic. There is no word in Arabic as Hajji or Hajjis. The ritual is HAJJ, the plural is HUJJAJ; the singular is HAAJJ (masculine)and HAAJJA (feminine). Hajji may be a Wolof translation and is incorrect to use thinking that it is an Arabic word.

    The solution to this problem is to put the descendants of historically corrupt Banu Umaya beginning with Abu Sufiane and Muawiya Bnu Abi Sufiane and his son Yazid, the Drunkard, under tremendous pressure. How can we do that? This is how we can do it: We need to boycott the Hajj. Let those Saudi citizens and residents visit in hundreds of thousands without authorisations and us non-Saudi called Wafidoon (an derogatory word used by most Saudis to insult immigrants that live in Saudi Arabia under a caste system) where believe it or not Whites have higher status than Arabs and Indians, Blacks and Philippinos have the lowest status and live in dire conditions in the land of our beloved prophet (bpuh).

    May be we should advise the youth and adults not to go to Hajj or visit that racist, fascist, Oligarchic so called "Salafist" (where the five Almadhahib are not official by the way until they make a sincere effort to make the performance of Hajj safe for alhujjaj . -What an insult to Assalaf Assaleh to call their behavior Salafia!!!

    May be only the elderly who stubbornly believe that death there will garantee a free ride to paradise and who wish to die there and who's days are numbered anyways should not be discouraged from going to Hajj especially that we Muslims know that we must perform the Hajj if we have the resources to perform this mandatory ritual.

    Wa Allah A'lam: Allah knows better,

    Wa akhiru da'wana ani alhamdu lillahi rabbi l'alameen

    Zinedine

  6. Harith from USA

    I would like to thank Dr. Auwal for his contribution regarding the Hajj, yet I must say I disagree with him. I have spoken to countless people who have been to Hajj. Each time i speak to one, they immediatly say that the Hajjis are usually at fault.

    I keep hearing of all this technology that is supposed to make the Hajj easier, but no one is realistic. Anyone who has been to Makkah knows the city and its geographic location and can tell the difficulity of a subways system. I in no way defend the Saudi govrnment, but i could not believe that the author of the article quoted an individual and not a person in govrnment as to why they are not building a subway system.

  7. zamzam from USA

    It will be beneficial if we can come up with ways to prevent a tragedy like the one that occured. but henceworth, those who have died there are lucky as they have died in a blessed place.

  8. Prof. Mansoor Ul Huda Abbasi from PAKISTAN

    Macro level arrangements of the Saudi govt. are excellent but micro level plans need a thorough monitoring and rivision.

    For Jamrats, due to time limit, it is suggested that the moving belts may be introduced around the jumrats so that there is no rush of the people who turn back after throwing stones.

    Overhead bridges from different opposit directiomns may be constructed to make this prayer more safe.

  9. Hisham from Singapore

    The writer has provided a good remarks, most of it are true in reality. It all comes to out to one thing as I believe - knowledge. A lot of people have a narrow minded thinking and lack of civil religious knowledge. We should be made known that Islam is purely a simple and very tolerant religion. It never make us to be difficult in practicing, be patience, especially in Hajj.

  10. Sister from UK

    salaamu alaykum,

    We all have our time to die, and Allah SWT knows best when and how,Alhamdulillah.

    salaamu alaykum

  11. Riaz from usa

    i would agree with most issues the article has summarized.

    the problems are many but they are not without solutions,where there is a will,then there is a way.

    1. People from different parts of the world speak different languages so efforts should be made to train them in their respective countries about hajj it's obligations and the need for discipline and good behavior.

    2. Brochures containing diagrams of places, directions and roads depicted in a manner such as Disney theme parks made readily available to all hajjis in their respective countries prior to arrival.

    3. Instead of subway systems, an elevated monorail system with multiple tracks connecting Makkah with Mina, Mina with Arafah, Arafah with Muzdalifah, and Muzdalifah with Mina which form a circle could be easily constructed within a years time between the two hajj periods which will take care of the transportation problem and help the environment and the health of the hajjis by avoiding exposure to fumes.

    4. A crowd control mechanism at the Jamarat with multiple sets of turnstile systems which would be electronically controlled and help with the flow of the hajjis can be created such as the London underground turnstile systems.

    5. At the airport, I agree with the author that there is an unnecessary delay during processing the paperwork of the hajjis because one hajji's passport is checked by eleven different people. There must be a better mechanism to do this without compromising the security of Saudi Arabia and also the dignity and honor of the hajjis who are the guests of Allah.

    6. There is definite indifference and arrogance shown by the authorities who are involved in managing the Hajj program. The solution for this is to bring non-Saudi volunteers from all over the Muslim world who would be more than happy to assist the hajjis with courtesy and honor.

    7. The Saudi government can and should make all the changes which are aforementioned to make Hajj if not comfortable at least co

  12. unknown from usa

    I think we should we be happy for the people who die during hajj-it's a true blessing, and the best time and place to die. And we should all hope to die a death during hajj.

  13. hassan from usa

    salam to all,

    as a two time pilgrim, I am very impressed with the progress of the Saudis...I attended in 1995 which turned out to be highly progressed from accounts of close friends who had attended in 88 and 94. I was blessed with another hajj in 2001 and even more had been accomplished. From bathrooms, to traffic flow, to hygiene trash disposal etc...May Allah reward the Saudis its one of the few things they get right!!! More Education for hujjaj concerning how to perform the rituals and when they can be performed is essential and even more paramount to this is more patience which is a hallmark test of the pigrimage...a hajji must not have mob mentality!!! If you lived in Arabia, wouldn't you go multiple times? Also, there are more people in Makkah during Ramadan...& no stampedes!!! SABR IS THE ANSWER...Next to jihad, what better way to die?

  14. sultana from USA

    I defenitely agree that Saudi Government needs to include International Muslim Community for the Management of the Hajj performance. Over the past years there has been thousands of hajis deaths due to poor management by Saudi Government. Overall I think Muslim Countries of the World needs to create a Hajj commission control all the management also limit number of people from each country including Saudi Arabia could perform Hajj based on its number of Muslim population. If a country has more population qota but not many people are financially able to go to hajj, then after certatin wait time this nu,number of population qotas could be given to other countries who could afford it. JazakAllah

  15. SomeGuy from USA

    I hear that Halliburton does good work cheap. Maybe the Saud's should talk to them.

  16. Ayaz from India

    I completely agree with the author on the treatment of the pilgrims. It just gets worse every year with no end in sight. This stampede should serve as a wake up call to the Saudi Govt and better procedures need to be put in place.

    One way to deal with this is to have as many muslims across the world write in protest to the Saudi govt to make improvements. Without a collective effort from all over they will not move.

  17. Moazzam Mekan from USA

    I agree that the responsibility of the tradegy rests on the Saudi Government. I am not, however, convinced about the solutions proposed.

    I attend the Hajj this year (1424 H). To me the main issue is not of the number of pilgrims or "illegal" pilgrims as the author points out, it is the matter of organization. I found poor organization everywhere.

    - There were no people to guide the pilgrim. The police (or shall I say scouts!) did not speak any language other than English while more than 80% pilgrims or non-Arabic speakers. Above all they had an attitude problem.

    - There were too many beggers, peddlers, and squatters who had effectively blocked the roads in Minna, roads to Jamrat and other places.

    - There was absolutely no traffic management mechanism. There were too many private vehicles. I am all for private Hajj; however, I wish that an off-site parking lot should be developed and everyone should be moved by public transport (the organizors can learn from Disney!!!).

    - Signs are poorly displayed. It takes a while to find your place in Mina. (Getting into Mina is another horror story as the organizors cannot cope with choked roads -- not due to excessive traffic, but because of squatters).

    And should I say anything about the mistreatment which starts right from arriving at the Hajj terminal?

    The rail links and other similar proposals are simply not cost effective due to the "peakiness" of the Hajj season. What is needed is simply better organization and education. Jamrat tragedies can easily be avoided by giving specific timing to each group, extending the Jamrat timing to include the whole day rather than compressing it in a few horrors because it is "preferrable" to do so.

  18. ali from saudi arabia

    I think the writer has diverted in the middle of article reg. the death of 244 pilgrims. He did not mention about the real problem at Jamarat (at bridge) where always the tragedy happens. For the time being forget all about their mis-management, greediness, overincome etc. Actually since (i think) 8 years Saudi Govt. is allowing Hajis partially to throw stones at Big Shaitan on first day. I mean they stop people at one point and when one group finishes the stone throwing then they release another group and this happens only at Bridge now under the bridge. You can understand to stop hundreds of thousands of people at Bridge under Sunshine, how much ordeal they have to face. There is no fans like underbridge or no shades etc. and hundred and thousands of people have to wait more than half an hour to go forward for stone throwing. They become restless with heat and congestion. Secondly, the persons who are throwing stones in the innermost circle after finishing they want to come out from the circle. Now you can imagine how much there would be chaos. My suggestion is that first they make shades and install fans over the bridge and next they must make escalator that take the people always forward and its speed should be like that a person can throw seven stones easily to the Shaitan, and by the escalator he can move forward. In this way taking the U-turn by people would be stopped. And plz ask Saudi authorities to dont release the people in groups. I hope my this suggestion would reach to the Saudi Government and also pray that in future there should be not such casuality.

  19. Bohari Mashli from Malaysia

    I totally agree to the measures proposed by Mr. Mohammad and we should not interfere with those who had died during the stampede - let pray jannah for them. Death could happen anywhere, anytime and in whatever circumstances.

    I doubt the majority of the pilgrims have undergo a systematic course on how to perform the hajj like what Malaysia did to her potential pilgrims. One of the objectives of the course is to instill dicipline, tolerance, patience and consideration.

    As such, the Saudi govermment should make it mandatory to all states, goverments and agencies to conduct hajj courses in their respective countries supervise by the Saudi's authorities. If the Saudis is thinking about cost, this is the least they can do.

    Stop pumping money to the US or Europe unnecessarily. Your true friends are the muslim. I am worried the Almighty will take all the privileges away and give it to others. Think of a long term benefits, like improving the infrastructures from airport, toilets, buses, accomodations, roads, telecommunication services, securities and whatever required of a modern cities into a world class standard.

    Act now please.

  20. ahmed from usa

    Saudi government just like many other Arab and Muslim countries have the following diseases:

    1- Corruptions, Corruptions, Corruptions.

    2- Laziness is to the highest degree.

    3- No sense of ergency at all. Nothing.

    4- Lack of vision.

    5- Too busy amassing wealth.

    And the list goes on. I think some people are just good to be left in poverty and thats what the Saudis should have been.

    I was in SA in 1981 and then I went back to perform Hajj in 2003. I did not see any significant changes or improvements if you want to call it that. I was astounded at the traffic madness during Hajj time and how easy it seems to solve it if they just built a subway system. Even if they just put nice pathways for people to walk between all those points during Hajj. Few of us in may group walked all around between Makkah, Mina, and Muzdallifah. we enjoyed much doing that than being in those buses which suffocate people with the fumes.

    It is truly amazing to see a wealthy country like that, which has no clue about the mess they are in. I don't know how they can sleep knowing so many millions of Muslims are suffuring when performing Hajj.

    I can only ask Allah (swt) to guide them.

  21. 2004 Hajja from America

    As a recent Hajja, I find this article appaling especially coming from an "educated" person.

    Majority of the "downfalls" of Hajj occur NOT because of structural inadequacies or management, but because of the people.

    Why? Many - if not most - of the people do not follow the Sunnah in performing their rites or otherwise. They endanger themselves & others by this. Those going to the extreme - which the Sunnah is not - made situations crazy. People were hurt or offended because of other people who had no regard for anyone but themselves, their family, or their group.

    People spit, sit, eat, sleep & throw their trash, etc where they want! Signs & annoucements don't matter if people don't listen & ignore them. Somehow I could hear annoucements clearly in my language & others but most people didn't NOT hear them. They were not listening.

    People pass a huge sign at the Jamrat telling when & where to go or not go to do the opposite! Officers sometimes would block the way and people would fuss and fight trying to get through. Even the fact that people died in a morning stampede when the Sunnah is to go from midnoon to night!

    Somehow, I was able to find trashcans when needed & the cleaning personnel was abundant, but yet the sites were filthy. Why? The majority decided to throw their trash wherever they were ESPECIALLY where free gift boxes or other items were given!

    Ambulances can't get through because people don't move. Even places reserved for emergencies, people parked in or slept in. What are they going to do? Arrest the Hajjis? Tow a group's bus? Talk about more havoc!

    Some complaints you will never get around as long as the Kingdom continues to allow millions to come in to perform this duty.

    No matter how many changes, if the people don't take responsibility for their actions & look out for their fellow pilgrims & FOLLOW THE SUNNAH, the same story will continue to be told.