Tragically, 700 pilgrims were trampled to death this week during the Hajj, an annual Islamic journey to Mecca which Muslims are urged to carry out at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world. The event has frequently resulted in loss of life due to poor disaster prevention planning and public safety measures.
A History of Violence
During the month of the Hajj, Mecca, a city of 1.3 million, must accommodate 3 million visitors. These surging crowds have frequently erupted into stampedes and loss of life:
- 1426 pilgrims died in 1990 when a stampede started in a pedestrian tunnel
- 270 died in 1994 during the stoning of the Devil ritual
- 244 injured in 2004 in a stampede in Mina
- 346 killed in 2006 at the Jamarat Bridge
In addition to frequent stampedes, the annual pilgrimage has been marred by fires, protests, crime and disease.
Saudi Government Must Do More
Every time a tragedy occurs at the event Saudi officials vow to do more to protect the pilgrims. Somehow, this never happens and security personnel only appear after a tragedy occurs. With so many pilgrims travelling to Mecca each year, the Hajj is an enormous money maker for the people of Saudi Arabia, yet they have consistently failed to take the proper precautions to protect the visitors. Even after this latest tragedy, Saudi health officials were blaming the dead rather than admitting that the conditions at the event were ripe for disaster.
Despite spending aggressively on hotels and enlargements to the Grand Mosque in recent years, the Saudi Government appears to lack the skill to adequately manage the crowds of pilgrims do deal with the types of incidents that plague the event each year.
Disaster Prevention Planning
The Saudi government needs to take a much more proactive approach to disaster prevention. Teams should be established to create plans for crowd control, fire prevention, disease control, and other public safety concerns. Similar events held in Iraq have resulted in much less damage despite the presence of ISIS and other destabilizing factors. Proper planning and proactive use of security personnel can prevent this scale of tragedy occurring in the future. The Saudi government need to invest in the expertise they currently lack to build a resilient event management process.