Stampede Fallout


The tragic stampede that resulted in the death of over 800 pilgrims in Mina has unearthed a can of worms. The long standing cold war between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia has particularly been stoked further by the catastrophe, and the analysis and investigation of this incident has been marred by being subjected to the vagaries of this rivalry. Accusations and counter-accusations are flying thick and fast but given the partisan nature of at least Iranian and Saudi claims it becomes difficult for outside observers to determine what is fact and what is mere propaganda. Iran, which has lost more than 150 pilgrims in the stampede, has understandably taken Saudi Arabia to task over its gross mismanagement of Hajj. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has called for the Saudi Arabian government to formally apologise, while Iran’s chief prosecutor goes further and makes a case for an international criminal trial. On top of this, unconfirmed news reports from Lebanon — reports which are bolstered by Iran — suggest that the stampede was caused by the Saudi authorities closing off one path to accommodate a Saudi prince’s entourage, resulting in the convergence of pilgrims going two ways at the fatal bottleneck. Saudi Arabia vehemently denies any such rumour, and their counter offensive lays the blame on Iranian pilgrims going the wrong way. Days after the tragedy, which prompted the Saudi officials to immediately absolve themselves by pinning the blame on “African national” pilgrims not following instructions, the latest assault on Iranian pilgrims by a Saudi daily is both repugnant and highly dubious. However, even if one is compelled to sympathise with Iran over losing so many of its citizens in a thoroughly avoidable incident, their accusations are coloured as unreliable by the very nature of their rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The need of the hour is for the authorities to conduct an honest, open investigation that truthfully answers how this crush came about so that measures can be taken in the future to prevent such a mishap. Unfortunately, if the allegations about Royal protocol causing the stampede prove true, it is unlikely that the truth will come to light because the autocratic Saudi regime will likely conduct a cover up and, due to its wealth and strategic importance, is immune to any international judgement or censure. Due to the mudslinging, the Saudi regime is on the defensive and any hope for a fair inquiry is quickly receding. The firewall the Saudi government has put up around itself is evident from the fact that Iranian officials who wish to go to Saudi Arabia to investigate the causes of the stampede and, more importantly, find their missing nationals, are not being allowed into the country. Any similar attempt by other countries to set up an investigative panel is also likely to be blocked. It is clear that the only way for the truth to come out is by setting up a cross-national panel, but that seems exceedingly unlikely.

The inefficient and callous response of Saudi officials to the tragedy reasserts the call made in this space earlier for Hajj management to be turned over to a multinational Muslim committee. The stampede not only caused heavy loss of life but also resulted in thousands of pilgrims being unaccounted for. The families and companions of the missing pilgrims report a devastating and chaotic scene as the officials they are consulting about the whereabouts of their loved ones are said to be clueless and insensitive to their plight. Witnesses speak of arrogant nationalistic chauvinism on the part of these officials as they treat non-Arabs with contempt. Pakistanis stranded there with no input about their missing companions, the number of which is in excess of 300 according to some estimates, are particularly distraught, as they are left helpless by the Pakistani embassy and the local officials. The fact that there is no mechanism to locate or categorise missing individuals reveals an enormous organisational failure and reveals Saudi incapacity to organise such a monumental event on its own. The crisis has resulted in the new Saudi King being subjected to accusatory finger pointing and the eyes of the world are on him to take proactive, corrective action to fix the situation and hold the responsible individuals accountable. Such action however has been conspicuous by its absence so far and given the country’s track record, is unlikely to ever materialise. It seems as if this tragedy too will be swept under the rug and come next year, nothing substantial would have changed in the management of the Hajj, which may now be categorised as a life threatening endeavour.         

 The Editorial was Ist published in The Daily Times, Lahore


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