Saudi Arabia must take responsibility for the hajj stampede disaster

Last year's disastrous Hajj stampede

Prominent Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says Saudi Arabia and its apologists must stop making pathetic and scarcely believable excuses for the hajj stampede disaster, and should instead hold those responsible for it to account.

Two weeks after the disaster of the crane falling on pilgrims in the Haram al-Sharif – which claimed the lives of 110 visitors to the House of God – a bigger disaster has happened with around 800 pilgrims (at the time of writing) killed and hundreds more wounded near the scene of the stoning ritual.

We believe in divine fate as we believe in the will of God Almighty, but we also believe that the repetition of such disasters is downright proof of a lack of efficiency of the supervisors of the pilgrimage season, from the top of the Saudi pyramid to even the smallest traffic soldier.

To say the pilgrims are responsible for this disaster by accusing them of ignorance or a lack of discipline by some apologists for the Saudi government is an “insult” no less dangerous than the disaster itself. Such excuses and justifications are repeated every few years amid a state of apathy and lack of conscience, amid the death of thousands of innocent pilgrims.

Hajj season has turned into a source of concern and fear for pilgrims and their families because of the recurrence of such disasters, and the absence of any real guarantee that they will return safely to their home countries after performing their religious duties.

Saudi Arabia has already blamed Iranian and African pilgrims for the disaster
Saudi Arabia has already blamed Iranian and African pilgrims for the disaster

Nine years ago (in 2006) a similar tragedy occurred when 346 pilgrims died as a result of a stampede during the stoning ritual, and it was said afterwards that this issue had been resolved through the establishment of multi-storey bridges – which means that the problem was not the presence of bridges or not, but the mismanagement and the absence of planning and implementation.

The Saudi government said it had mobilized more than 30,000 troops and tens of thousands of civil defense officers to secure the hajj season from any acts of terrorism. So what a surprise that these latest victims were killed as a result of a more dangerous terrorist act – bad management, organization and neglect.

Some justifications that prevailed on the lips of officials, or apologists on social media or on television, focused on the point that the Saudi authorities hadn’t the necessary experience in “crowd management” in light of more than two million pilgrims flocking to the stone-throwing ritual all at once.

This is pure unprecedented denial and unacceptable and unconvincing excuses. If the Saudi authorities after more than eighty years of supervising pilgrimage seasons do not have sufficient experience in crowd management, then who has?

If that’s the case, why aren’t Muslims and foreign experts brought in to do the job, especially as pilgrims and visitors to the holy places bring an annual income to the Saudi treasury of an estimated $8.5 billion, according to official data?

All over the world there are sports games, arts festivals and religious celebrations frequented by hundreds of thousands of devotees who enter stadiums and arenas at the same time and leave at a specific time. But such disasters occur only rarely, so why not hire those who oversee the organization of these games and festivals?

And why doesn’t Saudi send engineers and administrators to study this science abroad? There are thousands of young intelligent Saudis who are qualified for this task.

The answer to these questions is neglect, indifference and lack of good governance. It is arrogance and lack of accountability and transparent investigations, and sweeping these tragedies under the rug, and denial every time they happen, because those responsible for them very often are the princes of the ruling family, directly or indirectly.

May God have mercy on all the victims and make them martyrs but we cannot, and should not, as Arabs and Muslims, forgive or tolerate those who bear responsibility for this disaster no matter how high their position.

And we demand a serious, scientific and transparent investigation to know all the facts and to hold accountable all those responsible. It is high time that these disasters stopped entirely, and that the pilgrimage season becomes one of safety.

This article first appeared in Raialyoum and was translated from Arabic

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