NO ONE knows yet precisely why a stampede of pilgrims during the hajj in Saudi Arabia turned so deadly. The reports of 769 deaths and at least 934 wounded, with horrific images of bodies strewn about, as well as eyewitness accounts, suggest that panic ensued amid pushing and shoving, leading to the worst hajj disaster in 25 years. Granted, it was extremely hot, about 114 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pilgrims may have been easily thrown into uncertainty. But the responsibility for this catastrophe lies with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and a closed political system that cannot learn the lessons of previous failures.
Sadly, the pain of a hajj stampede is not a new story. In 2006, 364 pilgrims died in a crush; in 1997, 340 died in a fire-related incident; another 270 perished in 1994; and in 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in an overcrowded tunnel leading to holy sites. After these disasters, Saudi Arabia has each time spent millions to improve the facilities, vowing that it would not happen again. And it happens again. It is not unreasonable to ask why one of the wealthiest nations on the planet cannot seem to get right the basic infrastructure to handle the safety of so many people, a journey known well in advance in a place for which the Saudi regime holds the title of “custodian.”
This time, the deaths occurred in Mina, about four miles from Mecca, near a place where pilgrims throw seven stones at pillars called Jamarat, marking the location where Satan is believed to have tempted the Prophet Abraham. The BBC reported that two massive lines of pilgrims converged at an intersection close to the Jamarat Bridge. Immediately after the carnage, King Salman said he had “instructed concerned authorities to review the operations plan [and] to raise the level of organization and management.” Saudi Arabia’s health minister blamed the pilgrims, saying they failed to follow instructions.
Both of these narrow responses mask the far deeper problem: a monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia without any airing of criticism of the regime or tradition of accountability. When failures occur or crises threaten public safety, there is no unbridled media around to identify those responsible and expose errors to the public. Decision-making is obscure and shrouded in secrecy. The consequences of this misrule were amply evident when the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, a severe coronavirus, began to sweep through the kingdom in 2012-2013. For a long time, the authorities assured people everything was all right, but it wasn’t, in part because of a breakdown in infection control at some hospitals.
This sounds like a story that a good blogger or activist might expose. But in Saudi Arabia today, bloggers and others who dissent are violently punished for speaking out. The disaster at the hajj is a bell tolling not only for the horrible loss of life, but also for the intolerant, closed system of Saudi rule.