Why We Should Be Worried About This Year’s Hajj Tragedies?

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THIS YEAR’S annual Hajj pilgrimage witnessed two harrowing incidents in which more than 1000 pilgrims lost their lives and an approximately equal number were injured. The first tragedy in which more than 100 pilgrims lost their life and more than 200 were injured happened on Sep 11, 2015 inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, when a construction crane crashed through the eastern side of the mosque. The head of Saudi’s civil defence authority, Suleiman al-Amr, said high winds during a storm caused the disaster. The Grand Mosque has been surrounded by a number of cranes. Reconstruction work has been going on to enlarge the mosque by 4.3m sq ft, allowing it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people.

The work has continued for the past two years and was expected to be largely completed before this year’s pilgrimage, which began on 22 September. Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, compared the carnage to that caused by a bomb. He suggested authorities were negligent by having a series of cranes overlooking the mosque. “They do not care about the heritage, and they do not care about health and safety,” he told AFP.

This is the tenth major tragedy in the last twenty five years where hundreds of pilgrims lost their lives during Hajj. In 1990, 1426 pilgrims were killed in a tunnel at Mina after a failure in its ventilation system. 270 pilgrims lost their lives in a stampede during the stoning ritual in 1994. In 2004, 250 pilgrims were killed in Mina. In the last major accident during Hajj, before this year tragedies, occurred in the year 2006 in which 360 people were killed in a stampede in Mina. This year also, on Sep 24th, more than thousand people were killed in a stampede in Mina.

In the aftermath of the first incident inside the Holy Mosque where 107 pilgrims lost their lives, the Saudi authorities suspended the Bin Laden Group from undertaking further construction work. It is difficult to imagine that a fair inquiry will be carried out into this incident, given that it was not only the carelessness of the Bin Laden Group, but the Saudi authorities as well, who did not stop construction work even when a few million pilgrims were present in Makkah for undertaking Hajj. In the second tragedy where more than a thousand pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede, the immediate reaction from the Saudi authorities was deplorable and one of insensitivity. The authorities immediately blamed pilgrims with ‘’African nationalities’’ for causing this stampede. The authorities did not wait for at least a preliminary investigation into the causes of this stampede to make such farfetched assertions. It seems these baseless allegations in the absence of a proper investigation were meant to shield the Saudi authorities from taking any blame and for being careless with the arrangements. Fatalism was also thrown in for good measure. Knowing well that the public anger among Muslims about these deaths is short lived, the Saudi authorities did what they do best: use their official machinery, clerics and their foot soldiers round the world to bail them out of an ugly situation. “You are not responsible for what happened”, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in a meeting in Mina one day after this tragedy. “As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable,” Sheikh told the prince, who is also minister of interior. But pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the flow of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in searing temperatures.

The army of Al-Saud took control of Makkah in 1924. The Saudi monarchy has used the annual pilgrimage of Hajj as the most important source of its legitimacy. Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of oil in the world and has made enormous fortunes from the sale of oil, post the 1973 oil embargo, in which Saudi Arabia became the most dominant player in the global oil market. The high death toll during Hajj this year will lead many to raise doubts whether the country, despite being wealthy and rich, is capable of ensuring highest safety standards to carry out a pilgrimage of such enormous magnitude every year. The more important question though is whether the safety and security of the pilgrims is paramount in the Saudi Govt’s priorities?

To seek answer to this important question, one needs to look at not only the round the clock construction going on in Makkah, especially around the Holy mosque but also needs to understand the lopsided nature of Saudi economy which is highly dependent on high oil prices. It is now well known that the Saudis have literally bulldozed the history and heritage of Islam in the two Holy cities. In their mindless zeal to construct new hotels and shopping malls around the Kaa’ba, the Saudi authorities have shown scant respect for Islam’s centuries old heritage. The focus of construction around the Kaa’ba, without any worthwhile improvement of facilities in Mina, where all the pilgrims gather at one place during the five days of Hajj, and the rest of Makkah and its suburbs clearly shows that these investments are not driven by a concern for the well being of the common pilgrims, but to boost revenues for the Saudi Govt. Presently more than 80% of Saudi economy is dependent on oil revenues. Given that oil prices have been highly unstable and have touched multi year lows recently, the Saudi Govt finds it difficult to manage an expanding budget. The Saudi budget has been worked out keeping an average price of $110 per barrel, but the global prices are now hovering around $45. The country, in addition to throwing crumbs at their population to ward of any chances of rebellion against the monarchy also needs to fund the extravagant lifestyle of its ruling elites. Add the misadventure that the country has undertaken in Yemen and the billions it spends on spreading its ideology, funding militants in Syria, buying think tanks in the West and also making generous donation to many prestigious Western Universities, the country is showing an earnest desire to diversify its economy and move away from heavy reliance on oil exports. It is also important to note that after signing the nuclear deal, Iran’s oil will also hit the global market which will keep the supply quite high and the prices low. Saudi Arabia, despite the low prices has not agreed to supply cuts, because it does not want its leadership in the oil market to come under threat. Major supplies of shale oil from the US are expected to hit the market by 2020, which will reduce America’s dependence on Saudi oil. But that would not signal an end of the American patronage of the Saudi monarchy, given the country is one of the biggest buyers of weapons from American and European corporations.

It is no wonder that the Kingdom is spending enormous resources on building luxury hotels and malls around Kaa’ba where the extremely rich pilgrims from across the world can come, stay and shop. Had the Saudi authorities cared about the poorer and even the middle class pilgrims, they would have undertaken a more equitable construction plan in the city and would have also spent immense resources in upgrading the road infrastructure, the civic facilities like sewage and hospitals in the city and its suburbs. With expensive hotels dotting the skyline of Makkah in the vicinity of Kaa’ba, it is impossible for the poorer pilgrims to even think of staying near the Holy mosque. Instead, the vicinity of the Kaa’ba has become the exclusive domain of the super rich. The facilities in Mina, where the worst accidents have taken place during Hajj, have not been improved which would be commensurate with the rising number of pilgrims. With a total of 1.2 million pilgrims in 1997, the Hajj witnessed a peak inflow of 3 million pilgrims in 2013. The Saudi authorities are targeting an annual inflow of about 5 million pilgrims in the coming years.

Hajj and Umra is becoming a major source of revenue for the Saudi Govt. Given the high stakes in such religious pilgrimage and the country’s desire to diversify its economy, the country is literally trying to maximize its return on investment. Let’s not harbour any illusion that the Saudi authorities care about the well being and safety of common pilgrims. For them, Hajj and Umra is merely becoming a source of keeping their cash registers ringing. A cursory look at how and where the Saudi authorities are undertaking construction activity should be enough for a discerning observer to understand the method behind this madness. A large section of the Muslim middle class has somehow been enamored by this Saudi construction boom and this vandalism against culture, history and heritage. Perhaps they will realize the futility of these shopping malls and luxury hotels when they themselves will be unable to afford such luxury and hence will be forced to take accommodation away from the Holy mosque. Till that time let them revel in the cocoon of their materialist piety. This year’s twin tragedies at the Hajj should sound an alarm among the Muslims globally. There is a need for course correction and the Muslims have to speak about it. But that is perhaps expecting too much from a community of 1.6 billion, who seem to have taken it upon themselves not to learn from successive mistakes and failures and instead bury their heads than find answers to their problems.

Tariq Jameel Wani is an investment professional with interest in history, politics and sports. He can be reached at jameel@kashmirobserver.net

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