Originally Published 2015-10-13 10:23:15 Published on Oct 13, 2015
The Saudi monarchy is facing challenges on many fronts but will brazen it out, fully confident of the unstinted support of its powerful patrons in Washington. Some changes, however, may occur in the Saudi government as a sop to the growing clamour for accountability.
Trading accusations over the Haj pilgrims' tragedy

The stampede on the way from Medina to Mina in Saudi Arabia, just before the festival of Eid ul-Azha or Bakr Id in the subcontinent, trampled to death over 750 pilgrims and injured over 950 belonging to over 15 nationalities. Thirty-five Indians have so far lost their lives in this tragedy, which also took the lives of over 130 Iranians, the highest number of casualties suffered by any country. While world leaders have expressed condolences as expected, this tragedy has raised serious questions regarding the management of the Haj, particularly the crowd management techniques.

The annual Haj pilgrimage is an occasion that brings Muslims from different countries all over the world together in a spirit of brotherhood, cutting across differences in race, sect, wealth and even nationality that divide the 1.6 billion Muslims globally. But differences in class, race and wealth simmer below the surface, even when the same simple outfit for all pilgrims attempts to wipe out such differences. This catastrophe has immediately cracked open this superficial egalitarianism and differences among Muslims, particularly between the regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both for geopolitical and sectarian (Sunni versusShia) reasons. A slanging match has started between these two regional rivals and self-appointed leaders of the Sunni and Shia blocs. This tragedy has also sparked off a raging debate on the effectiveness of the Saudi management and oversight of the Haj.

A Muslim is exhorted to perform the Haj at least once in his or her lifetime, subject to physical and financial ability. It is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam. Years ago, before the era of air travel and skyrocketing oil prices, Muslims from the subcontinent bought one- way tickets to sail to the port of Jeddah, the entry point on the Hejaz coast along the Red Sea for performing the Haj. It was a journey which was regarded as so perilous that relatives and friends gathered to bid a tearful farewell to the potential Haji, since many, particularly the elderly, never returned. The effort to brave the harsh Arabian weather, lack of water and Bedouin robbers often left defenceless pilgrims travelling in camel caravans facing adversity and the inevitability of death in the desert. Those who managed to reach Mecca sometimes died while doing the pilgrimage, succumbing to harsh weather or sickness. The dead were mourned but also celebrated because to die while performing Haj was to ensure instant entry into jannat or heaven. Not many returned home and acquired the aura that came with prefixing their names with the title "Al-Haj". Faith remains a great motivator for many even in our post-modern age.

The tragedy in the last week of September occurred during the annual Haj ritual of stoning the devil at Mina, a few kilometres from Medina. With two million pilgrims turning up for the Haj, it is a logistical nightmare. The pilgrims were caught in a massive stampede that was triggered when thousands of them were going towards Mina and thousands returning after completing the ritual. The Saudi authorities have been found wanting many times. Over the years, there is a worrying history of stampede-generated deaths during the Haj. In 1990, over 1,420 pilgrims died in the worst such incident in the history of the Haj. The carnage last week is the second deadliest incident and comes days after the deaths of over 100 pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, when a construction crane on the site fell, crashing down on pilgrims inside the mosque. In 2006 after another similar carnage, the Saudi authorities erected three massive pillars, symbolizing the devil and constructed a bridge with five levels, to facilitate the stoning of the devil ritual, spending over $1.2 billion. Yet there is a morbid regularity to these accidents.

There are too many pilgrims all converging at the same site, pushing and shoving to throw seven stones at the devil, all competing to complete the rituals in a small finite window of time of five days. This is the principal cause of these recurring stampedes. Management lacunae and inadequate infrastructure add to the chaos. By all eye witness accounts gathered by the international media, the failure of the Saudi authorities in crowd control caused the tragedy. One Lebanese daily has alleged that the stampede was triggered by the arrival of a huge convoy of vehicles transporting the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister who is also the king's son. The Lebanese daily Al-Diyar has reported: "The large convoy of Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the King's son and deputy crown prince, that was escorted by over 350 security forces, including 200 army men and 150 policemen, sped up the road to go through the pilgrims that were moving towards the site of the 'Stoning the Devil' ritual, causing panic among millions of pilgrims who were on the move from the opposite direction and caused the stampede."

The Haj now draws millions of pilgrims from across the world, when travel has become far more convenient. While Saudi Arabia claims to have spent billions on infrastructure, it also earns billions from the annual pilgrimage by charging fees for all services and facilities. Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world having amassed huge wealth as a major oil producing country. It is, therefore, not hard pressed for funds. It is clear that the Saudi authorities have ignored safety concerns that have been raised from time to time. In a country that is so regimented and controlled, it is not surprising that some of the billions spent on managing the Haj have been misdirected for profit generating projects. One obvious reason for this is the overemphasis on building malls and hotels that have restricted open spaces for the movement of such large numbers of pilgrims. The other reason is total lack of public accountability in an opaque and authoritarian system. No one has ever been punished for the mismanagement that has caused so much human suffering.

Among the usual royal titles, the Saudi king boasts of the title of "Custodian of the two holiest Sites" in an obvious attempt to take over the mantle of religious leadership of the Islamic world. Iran has questioned this title and has launched a scathing official and media campaign against Saudi Arabia, demanding international participation in the investigation ordered by the Saudi crown prince. Iran's trenchant criticism has been led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He directly blamed Saudi authorities for "mismanagement" and Iranian officials have weighed in by accusing Saudi authorities of "tactlessness" regarding safety procedures. Iran has charged the Saudi authorities of being "irresponsible" and "incapable" of managing the Haj and has demanded accountability. Meanwhile, it has also declared three days of mourning. The Saudi ambassador has been summoned to receive a protest at the Iranian foreign ministry.

Saudi Arabia, rejecting Tehran's criticism, has been forced to launch a media counter-offensive in the face of Iranian accusations and international outrage. The Saudi foreign minister accused Iran of "playing politics" and asserted that his country had invested enormous resources in improving infrastructure and security over the years. Scrambling for damage control, the minister has promised that those responsible for the carnage will be held accountable and mistakes made will be rectified. Clearly, the Saudi government has been stung badly by a series of mishaps in Mecca. Among other elements of damage control, the Saudis have got their grand mufti to exonerate the crown prince. Other Saudi religious leaders have been prodded to make public statements saying that fate and destiny were beyond human control. The Shura council chairman, a toothless institution, has called upon all citizens and Muslims to ignore propaganda by enemies of his "pure country".

The Saudi government's instinctive reaction has vacillated between the defensive deflection of blame in the initial stages and offensive indignation later. The Saudi crown prince and head of the Haj management committee has ordered an inquiry, called it a tragic incident and condoled with all the victims. King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has also expressed deep regret and offered his condolences to the bereaved families. Elderly, infirm and physically weak pilgrims constitute the bulk of the dead and wounded. Initially the Saudi health minister blamed pilgrims for flouting guidelines. The head of the central Haj committee, another Saudi prince, blamed African pilgrims for the stampede and that smacked of a latent racist intent. One unidentified Saudi official has acknowledged that for an unknown reason two walkways from Mina had been closed, forcing pilgrims into massing on other walkways and causing the stampede.

The Saudi king has quickly absolved his security forces of any blame, no doubt mindful of the responsibility that his son, the deputy crown prince, has to shoulder as the country's interior minister in charge of the security forces. The series of disasters that has hit Islam's holiest city Mecca in September this year is politically damaging for the Saudi monarchy. The new Saudi king had made drastic changes after taking over, bringing in close family members into powerful positions who will now be blamed for incompetence by other members of the large Saudi royal family who have been either removed or left out of the official power and patronage structure.

This tragedy is a major challenge to the Saudi king and his administration. The Saudis have got involved in a brutal war in Yemen, supported extremist jihadi organizations who have committed unspeakable brutalities in Syria, and in India, recently, a Saudi diplomat was accused of rape and trafficking in women. The rivalry with Iran has fuelled the civil war in Syria and Yemen. Ominously, a letter, purportedly written by a Saudi prince, a grandson of the founder of the kingdom, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, has been circulated anonymously. The letter is reportedly very critical of Saudi miscalculation and adventurism in Syria and Yemen. It talks of a growing economic crisis because of low oil prices that have led to a rapid fall in revenues, threatening to send the budget deficit ballooning to 20 per cent of gross domestic product. It also calls for austerity measures to be put in place immediately. Cutbacks in social welfare spending and subsidies will trigger social unrest among the 40 per cent of Saudi youth that remains unemployed and the less privileged Saudis who have grown accustomed to subsidies and doles. The letter exhorts the Saudi royal family to meet and isolate the present king, the crown prince and the deputy crown prince, the ruling triumvirate. The veracity of this letter has not been established.

Apart from the captive Saudi media and their equally chained counterparts in the Gulf sheikhdoms, there is hardly any sympathy for the Saudis in the regional media. International criticism has also been heaped on the United Nations for making Saudi Arabia the head of a regional UN panel on human rights. Critics have highlighted the dismal human rights record of Saudi Arabia which has publicly beheaded over 175 people this year, publicly flogged a young Saudi for voicing support for reforms and plans to publicly behead and crucify the headless body of a 17-year-old Saudi who committed the 'criminal' offence of asking for democracy in his country. The United States of America has been forced to welcome the appointment because Saudi Arabia is a 'friend' and an 'ally'. Such is the nature of geopolitics and the incredible power of petro-dollars.

For the Saudis, the scorecard has been pretty poor of late. Critics in the Arab world have echoed earlier calls for handing over the management of the Haj to a special international Muslim body or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This is clearly anathema to the Saudis. The wars in Syria and Yemen are not going well for the Saudis. In Syria, the Russians have stepped in with military help for the Assad government and the Western, Saudi and Turkish plan for regime change in Syria may go for a toss. In Yemen, indiscriminate Saudi air strikes have caused an immense humanitarian crisis but no one is ready to help Yemen. The Saudi monarchy is facing challenges on many fronts but will brazen it out, fully confident of the unstinted support of its powerful patrons in Washington. Some changes, however, may occur in the Saudi government as a sop to the growing clamour for accountability.

(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs. He served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia)

Courtesy: The Telegraph

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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