25 Sep 2015

Haj stampede Q&A: safety and security in the Holy City

A day after more than 700 were killed at the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, questions are raised about exactly what security measures the Saudi government had in place, and who is to blame.

Why did this happen?

It depends on who you ask.

What we know is that a stampede took place at a crossroads in Mina between Street 204 and Street 223 as people were on their way to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual at Jamarat, at about 9am on Thursday morning. Saudi Arabia’s civil defence has said that at least 717 pilgrims died, and 863 were injured.

Several accounts suggest that two groups of pilgrims collided at the crossroads. An eyewitness told Channel 4 News that there was poor crowd control, and a road that should be one way seemed to have people travelling in both directions.

Pilgrims travel to each stage of the pilgrimage in specific groups, alloted specific times and areas.

The Saudi government has claimed that pilgrims failed to follow the crowd control rules. Khalid al-Falih, the health minister, claimed the stampede was “perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities”, while official sources have also said it was due to “indiscipline” among the crowd.

, a long-standing foe of Saudi Arabia, lost 131 of its nationals, and has reacted with fury, citing Saudi “mismanagement and inappropriate conducts”.

Mohammed Jafari, an adviser to Haj and Umrah Travel, the first haj tour operator in the UK, went further and said that the cause of the accident was the closure of two entrances to where the stoning takes place due to the King receiving dignitaries to his palace in Mina.

According to al-Dyar, the Arabic language daily, Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud and his security convoy arrived at Mina for a meeting with the King, his father. His convoy “sped up the road to go through the pilgrims…causing panic among millions of pilgrims who were on the move from the opposite direction and caused the stampede”, according to the paper.

Saudi officials have said the reports are “incorrect”.

It’s not the first time there’s been a deadly stampede at Haj. What security measures have the Saudis put in place?

After the 2004 stampede, in which 251 were killed at the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, the late King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz announced a major renovation project for Mecca and nearby Medina.

More than £600m was spent on rebuilding the five-storey Jamarat Bridge to boost capacity.

This year, the Civil Defence stationed 15,120 officers in various parts of Makkah, the Grand Mosque and the holy sites. About 5,000 security and surveillance cameras are in pace around Mecca and Medina.

The interior ministry said it has deployed 100,000 police, but Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has said that they lack language skills to deal with multiple nationalities and that they are poorly trained.

The Saudi government says it has spent about £200 billion on improving crowd safety at Haj since 1992.

In 2006, 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at Mina.

The following year, the Saudis introduced live crowd analytics software which can spot problems in the crowd, and can apparently predict where overcrowding is likely to happen.

Military personnel, the police and crowd managers examine live data feeds and monitor real time data on crowd numbers, densities, distributions and flows.

We don’t know whether it’s linked or not, but since 2006, there has been a lull in the number of deadly stampedes at the Holy City, until this week.

If they’ve got crowd control technology to predict flows, how did this happen?

They weren’t using it where the accident took place, according to what we were told.

CrowdVision, the London-based company providing the software, said that the technology doesn’t cover Streets 204 and 223 in Mina, where the accident took place. It monitors the Jamarat Bridge and the Mecca metro system.

The company deploys the technology in locations specified by the Saudi government. It is understood that the government had not requested the use of the technology in that specific part of Mina.

How much does the Saudi government make from Haj?

The Mecca Chamber of Commerce said that last year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was due to earn about £5.6bn from Haj – a rise of 3 per cent on 2013 revenues.

A pilgrim who travels from another country to perform the Haj spends an average of £3,050 during the five days. Domestic worshippers spend about £900 each on accommodation, food and drink, gifts and phone bills.

This year, local Haj companies are expecting a boost worth nearly £16m, according to local news reports.

Rents for local five star hotels this year soared by £12,300 over the haj period.

Some have been angered by the Saudi government’s apparent attempts to pursue development at all costs, including by razing historical and religious sites to make way for hotels and conveniences for the booming Haj industry. The house of the Prophet Mohammed’s companion, Abu Bakr, has given way to a Hilton hotel, and public toilets are now where the house of Khadija, the prophet’s wife, formerly stood.

Haj revenue accounts for about 3 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP.

Are there any plans to control numbers now?

The Saudi government has been expanding work at the Grand Mosque in Mecca – where more than 100 people were killed after a crane crashed earler this month.

In view of that, in 2012, the government ordered a 20 per cent cut in the number of pilgrims from abroad, and a 50 per cent reduction in domestic pilgrims.

In July, the government announced that this would be the last year in which the restrictions would take place, with the Grand Mosque expansion due to be completed by early next year.

Last night, however, Bandar Al-Hajjar, the Haj minister, denied that this had been announced, and said that “the quota system will continue”.