Learning from the deadly Hajj stampede
This article originally appeared at themedialine.org.
More than 700,000 pilgrims are already on the ground and nearly a million and half more are expected by mid-week; the annual Hajj season is now underway in Mecca with Saudi authorities pledging that they are on top of both safety and security.
But a stampede last year that resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 pilgrims and new terror threats – including a foiled plot to assassinate the Emir of Mecca – underscore the danger of attending the world’s biggest annual gathering of people.
This year authorities have introduced electronic bracelets for all pilgrims.
The GPS-connected devices will track each pilgrim and instruct worshippers on timings of prayers with multi-lingual support to guide non-Arabic speaking visitors around the ritual stations that make up the course of the Hajj.
“The electronic bracelet stores the personal information of each pilgrim including where the person entered the kingdom, visa number, passport number and address,” said Eisa Mohammad Rawas, deputy head of the Hajj and Umrah [Islamic Pilgrimage] Ministry. “The new device will allow better service from government and private sector bodies, especially to those who are lost, elderly and do not speak Arabic.”
While the “e-bracelets” are being touted as a safety device, the digital trackers are part of a ramped-up security approach to the Hajj.
This year’s Hajj officially runs from September 9 to 14.
The authorities have tightened rules for domestic pilgrims, and Saudi nationals will be required to show special Hajj permits at road checkpoints at entrances to Mecca.
“A thousand new surveillance cameras were installed this month at the Grand Mosque,” the Assistant Commander of Haj Security Forces Major General Saud Al Khileiwi announced. “They are linked to a control room staffed by special forces tasked with monitoring pilgrim movements.”
Al Khileiwi added that he was deploying special forces inside the mosque – the landmark 356,800 square meter structure enveloping the Kaba, Islam’s holiest place.
For the first time this year, wheelchairs used by the disabled for circumambulation of the Kaba have been banned from the mosque’s ground floor section. “The decision has been taken to ensure the safety of all pilgrims,” said Civil Defense chief Brig. Ahmed Al-Dulaiwi. “Wheelchair-bound pilgrims have been allocated the upper floors of the mosque.”
The 10,000-room Abraj Kudai Hotel – slated to be the world’s largest – will not be open until next year’s Hajj season, but Saudi officials announced this week that they had imported enough air-conditioned tents to house an additional 82,000 pilgrims.
With more pilgrims and their likely need for medical attention, the Saudi Red Crescent says it is boosting its presence at the Hajj with 1,579 paramedics and 1,400 volunteer physicians.
“We’ve deployed 2,979 of our staff to work in Mecca, Medina and other holy sites to provide ambulance services to the guests of Allah,” said Red Crescent Chairman, Mohammed Abdullah Al-Qasim.
Saudi’s Civil Defense Agency convened its top commanders for an operational briefing Saturday where they were told “not to be lenient toward any violations of safety requirements.”
Civil Defense patrols are on special lookout to prevent pilgrims from using unauthorized cooking gas fires. Clearly, however, Saudi Arabia’s security services have identified threats with larger national implications than unauthorized campfires.
On Thursday the country’s Interior Ministry announced that it had detained 47 Saudis and 69 expatriates in a month long pre-Hajj roundup of terror suspects.
Six detainees were accused of a belonging to an Al-Qaeda cell plotting to assassinate the Emir of Mecca Khaled Al-Faisal.
“The arrest of a Takfiri terrorist cell that planned to assassinate Prince Khaled and further warnings from security personnel, did not deter him from carrying out 17 field tours of the holy sites in recent weeks,” noted the mass circulation Jeddah daily Okaz in a laudatory editorial Saturday.