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26 September 2015

Makkah tragedy: Failure of the Custodian of the Holy Sites

The tent city at Mina, six miles east of Mecca, is a maze of 160,000 identical fiberglass cones — bright white, air-conditioned, and spread beyond sight over the Holy City’s eastern plains. Immediately to its west stand three pillars, known as the jamaraat, which represent Satan. As one of the final rituals of hajj, pilgrims symbolically stone the pillars, tossing pebbles to represent their rejection of sin.

On Thursday morning, two opposite waves of pilgrims on their way to and from the stone-throwing ritual collided in the bottlenecked footpaths between the holy sites. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds suffocated or were trampled underfoot. As one pilgrim told the Associated Press: “I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him. People were climbing over one another just to breathe.” Saudi Arabia’s Civil Defense Directorate first reported 100 dead, then 220, then 310. By mid-morning, it became clear that the hajj, Islam’s holy pilgrimage, was facing its gravest disaster in 25 years.

The deaths of these worshipers, 717 at last count in addition to over 800 injured, is a shocking human tragedy, bewildering and heartbreaking in equal measure. But it is also a case of bitter déjà vu — and an undeniable disgrace upon the kingdom, which has spent billions of dollars and over a decade on construction efforts to convince Muslims worldwide that it can be trusted to safeguard the teeming masses of the faithful who go, year after year, to the holy sites around Mecca. Saudi Arabia has failed.

The pathways between Mina’s tent city and the jamaraat have now hosted seven deadly stampedes since 1990. The stampede on Thursday morning occurred just within the tent city’s boundaries. The disasters have been almost identical: crushes and collisions of unguided masses of people. Damningly, Thursday’s tragedy also occurred after the Saudis spent roughly $1.2 billion on safety measures and upgraded capacities at the site following the last crush there, when 360 pilgrims were killed in 2006.

Against such exorbitant expenditures, the arithmetic of the stampede’s lethality is bitterly simple: The spaces are still too small, and the faithful are too many. As the loss of life reverberates throughout the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia’s construction priorities appear woefully out of touch with the needs of pilgrims.

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has focused over $40 billion on expansion and construction at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The luxury hotel suites and shopping centers at the Abraj al-Bait and Makkah Clock Royal Tower cost over $15 billion. And the Saudis have allocated $26.6 billion to expanding the mosque itself, announcing its intentions to increase capacity past 3 million worshipers.

This policy is misguided: The Grand Mosque is not where capacity and transit of pilgrims are in desperate need of repair. And until the expansion project itself led to a deadly crane collapse earlier this month, the Grand Mosque had never even been the site of a major disaster, despite the masses of worshipers seemingly ever-present within its walls.

Meanwhile, the Abraj al-Bait complex and an upcoming 10,000-room mega-hotel adjacent to the Grand Mosque similarly miss the point. In fact, these projects could compound the problem by furnishing the illusion that the hajj can accommodate even more people than the 2.5 million-plus who attend every year, a number that has more than doubled since 1997 as cheaper transportation, a growing middle class, and booming commercial hajj travel enterprises have made the pilgrimage accessible to far more Muslims worldwide.

Meanwhile, the nearest hospital to the Grand Mosque has only 52 beds. And while medical staffs and facilities are augmented for the hajj season — Saudi Arabia has established eight medical centers at the holy sites around Mecca — Thursday’s disaster demonstrates how little those measures mean without proactive safety guidance for pilgrims.

Health and safety protocols, including mandatory safety education standards for pilgrims, are necessary for a movement of people as large as the hajj. The Saudi government has spent a reported $35.5 billion on real estate for the Grand Mosque expansion but does not have an effective system for simply ushering the faithful through high-traffic areas at the holy sites. Almost 3 million pilgrims must traverse the narrow pathways to and from Mina and the jamaraat in a single day. After repeated tragedies, that passage demanded careful planning and decisive action to prevent further injury and death. Thursday’s senseless disaster showed that it received neither.

Funding must now be focused toward safety education and guidance for the massive population of worshipers that arrives every year at the holy sites around Mecca for hajj. Such guidance must be an integral part of the hajj protocol, as fundamental as receiving a visa. Research suggests that human behavior is subject to change in such panicked, claustrophobic conditions: Pilgrims must receive better instruction on how to prevent such scenarios from occurring and how to proceed safely within massive crowds. And just as urgently, Saudi authorities must train officers and ushers on how to safely guide pilgrims through high-traffic areas and how to defuse potential crushes before their momentum becomes unstoppable. These efforts are far more pressing than funding new hotels or a larger mosque.

Coming on the heels of the devastating crane collapse on Sept. 11 of this year that killed more than 100 worshipers at the Grand Mosque, this hajj was a crucial moment for Saudi Arabia to make good on its title as “Custodian of the Holy Sanctuaries” at Mecca and Medina. The moment was missed, and hajj counts another deadly disaster that Saudi Arabia’s lavish wealth and misguided spending could do nothing to avert.