By Courtney Trenwith
The deaths of more than 100 Iranians during the 24 September haj disaster, the largest of any country’s toll, could inflame tensions between arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, spilling over into regional conflicts.
While the number of pilgrims killed during the 24 September haj stampede is still being confirmed — with countries including India and Pakistan claiming the figure is as much as 50 percent more than the 769 given by Saudi officials — the fatal impact could be even more widespread.
The disaster has intensified already deep animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which suffered the highest number of casualties in the incident. More than an exchange of heated words, it could have the potential to escalate several regional conflicts serving as proxy wars between the long-time foes.
“The firming up of the Iranian-Saudi standoff is very bad news for the peoples of Yemen, Syria and Iraq, key battle ground states where the Iranian and Saudi guns are drawn and pointed at each other,” Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington says.
In Yemen, the conservative Sunni kingdom is leading a coalition that includes other GCC states, against Houthi rebels. Iran denies supplying weapons to the rebels but analysts contend the Shia state’s support of the Houthis has influenced Saudi Arabia’s active role, while the pair have been more covert in their participation in Syria and Iraq. Scores of GCC defence personnel are among the thousands of casualties since the Yemeni war broke out in April.
Saudi Arabia also accuses Iran of encouraging extremism among Shias in Kuwait and Bahrain, where several fatal bombings have occurred this year, as well as backing Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Tensions have flared this year with the US and other powers agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran that would see sanctions lifted, despite fears among unfriendly neighbours of an international swing towards a nuclear-capable Iran.
While the adversaries have previously overcome flare-ups, the haj tragedy is likely to delay any resolution in the current regional conflicts, in which both Saudi and Iranian involvement is crucial.
“What this latest round of acrimony has firmly secured is more delay in starting a process of dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Vatanka says.
“I think there are senior officials in both capitals that want to put an end to this before the cycle of proxy conflicts between the two reaches higher and more dangerous levels. [Iranian president] Hassan Rouhani was elected on a promise of dialogue with Riyadh, but the hardliners in Tehran will grab him by the political throat unless he plays along in the frenzy of the anti-Saudi movement.”
The worst haj-related incident since 1,426 pilgrims died when a fire swept through the tent city of Mina in 1990 occurred when two groups of pilgrims heading in opposite directions collided. How that happened, though, remains to be determined.
Iran quickly blamed Saudi Arabia’s “incapability and incompetence” and claimed the arrival of a royal and his hundreds-large entourage forced the crowd to turn on itself. Rouhani used his speech to world leaders at last week’s United Nations General Assembly to criticise Saudi Arabia’s organisation of the annual pilgrimage and call for an independent inquiry.
State Prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi vowed to take international legal action against Saudi Arabia’s rulers.
“They have to know that we will pursue the trial of Al Saud for the crime they have committed against the haj pilgrims through international courts and organisations,” he said on state TV.
Saudi Arabia retaliated by claiming Iranian pilgrims who refused to follow safety directions were at fault. The governor of Islam’s holiest city, Makkah, Prince Khalid Bin Faisal Al Saud, was accused of blaming African pilgrims (an accusation his administration later denied), while yet more varying allegations spread on social media.
CCTV footage is believed to have captured the disaster, but whether it is sufficient evidence or made public remains to be seen.
The government has dismissed officials responsible for the haj and King Salman ordered a swift investigation. But Gulf State Analytics senior advisor Theodore Karasik says that will not be enough to appease an incensed Iran.
“Iran will keep pushing for accountability for their lost citizens,” Karasik says. “At the end of the day, it is unlikely that the kingdom will care much about Iran’s opinions.”
Some analysts say the depth of the crisis could be determined by the outcome of the Saudi investigation. But it is yet to be seen whether the full report is made public.
“Riyadh has a lot to lose, not least its prestige in the Islamic world, if it is found guilty of incompetence in running this year’s haj,” Vatanka says. “At the moment, nuances of the truth seems to matter less to Iran. It simply wants to see the Saudi nose bloodied.”
Saudi Arabia may well self-induce international criticism as it tries to downplay any fault.
“The discrepancy in the numbers killed in the haj tragedy may come back to haunt the Saudis,” Karasik warns. “This issue possibly exposes lapses in Saudi Haj biometrics and tracking. So this catastrophe may become more than a Saudi-Iran issue over haj management.”
Saudi Arabia’s Civil Defence Directorate first said 100 people had died, with that number increasing to 220, 310 and 717. On 26 September, Saudi health minister Khalid Al Falih, who was installed in earlier this year after two predecessors were ousted amid controversy over the kingdom’s handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, increased the toll again, to 769, while promising an investigation would be “fast and announced, as has happened in other incidents”. He part-predicted the outcome, suggesting the crush occurred because “some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities”.
The pilgrims were heading to Jamarat, home to three pillars that represent Satan. One of the rituals of haj involves throwing stones at the pillars to represent their rejection of sin.
Last Monday, reports emerged quoting Indian and Pakistani diplomats based in Riyadh who said they had seen photos and lists of the dead, which tallied more than 1,100.
Unofficial photos of conflicting scenes also emerged on social media. While some images were of piles of dead bodies, others showed rescue workers in fluorescent vests helping victims.
Many fellow Islamic leaders have defended Saudi Arabia’s management of the pilgrimage and its related sites.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) secretary-general Iyad Ameen Madani, a Saudi cleric and former haj minister, expressed confidence in Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the event.
In a statement, he expressed the hope that “no party would seek to take advantage of the pilgrimage and pilgrims... in a controversial context that would divide rather than unite”.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, which lost at least four pilgrims in the stampede, flatly rejected Iran’s criticism.
“I do not sympathise with the hostile statements against Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I find the aggressive attitude towards Saudi Arabia incorrect.”
The Turkish leader said it would be wrong to “point a finger at Saudi Arabia, which does its best”.
While the haj had been relatively incident free for the past nine years, thousands of pilgrims have died since 1975. Many of them were in similar stampedes near Jamarat Bridge, including 270 in May 1994, 251 in February 2004 and 362 in January 2006, according to reported figures.
Several fatal incidents were in the pilgrim tent city. A cooking gas cylinder explosion in December 1975 caused a fire that killed more than 200 pilgrims, while 343 died in another fire in April 1997.
Clashes between Iranian protesters and Saudi police in July 1987 also led to the deaths of more than 400 Iranian pilgrims.
The kingdom has spent $1.2bn improving security and safety related to haj and the two holy mosques in the past decade. The greatest fear this year was that the biggest annual religious gathering in the world would prompt attacks, following several suicide bombings in the Gulf this year.
More than 100,000 security officers, as well as civil defence workers, were brought into the Makkah region this year to help control crowds. However, some argued the kingdom’s most experienced security personnel were missing, having been diverted to the Yemeni conflict.
Visa quotas also have been cut this year and last, by 50 percent for foreign countries and 25 percent for Saudis, while renovations and expansion works are undertaken at the Grand Mosque. State-of-the-art radio frequency identification (RFID) bus and vehicle trackers, biometric ID cards and CCTV cameras also were introduced to prevent non-registered pilgrims from gaining access.
At the site where the pilgrims caught in the stampede were heading — Jamarat — the pillars had been expanded to allow room for more pilgrims at one time.
However, none of these measures were able to prevent the disaster.
“With all this investment, training, and foreign contractor assistance, the disaster still occurred,” Karasik says. “Clearly, something went wrong in this unfortunate accident.”
Foreign Policy reporter Mustafa Hameed accused the kingdom of prioritising “gaudy” and “lavish” developments in the holy city over improved safety. An expansion of the Grand Mosque has consumed more than $26bn, while $15bn has been ploughed into luxury hotels and shopping centres surrounding the area.
“This policy is misguided,” Hameed wrote on 25 September.
There had been no casualty or major disaster at the Grand Mosque precinct until two weeks before the haj, when a crane collapse killed 110 people.
But two horrific incidents in a fortnight still have led to little condemnation from Muslims around the world. Iran may well be left to stand out on its own. Just how it reacts could determine the real casualty rate.
Factbox: Haj disasters
December 1975 — A cooking gas cylinder explodes in the pilgrim tent city, causing a fire that kills over 200 pilgrims.
July 1987 — Iranian protesters clash with Saudi police, leading to the death of more than 400 Iranian pilgrims.
July 1990 — Inside the Al Muaissem tunnel near Makkah in Saudi Arabia, 1,426 pilgrims are crushed to death. The accident occurs on Eid Al Adha (The Feast of Sacrifice), Islam’s most important feast at the end of the haj and the day of the “stoning of the devil” ritual.
May 1994 — A stampede near Jamarat Bridge in Mina, near Makkah, kills 270 in the area where pilgrims ritually stone the devil.
April 1997 — 343 pilgrims are killed in a tent fire at the haj camp at Mina, prompting the government to construct a permanent, fireproof tent city there.
April 1998 — One hundred and nineteen Muslim pilgrims are crushed to death in Saudi Arabia at the haj.
February 2004 — A stampede kills 251 Muslim pilgrims in Saudi Arabia near the Jamarat Bridge during the stoning of the devil.
January 2006 — Some 362 Muslim pilgrims are crushed to death at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat Bridge during the stoning ritual.
September 2015 — A crane crashes into the Grand Mosque days before haj begins, crushing 111 people to death.
September 2015 — A crush of pilgrims travelling from the camp at Mina to the Jamarat Bridge kills at least 769, Saudi civil defence says. Diplomats from several affected countries say the toll is above 1,000.