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Opinion: Politicizing the Hajj Stampede | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Muslim pilgrims move towards the Jamarat stations to symbolically stone the devil in Mina, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on 25 September 2015. (EPA/AMEL PAIN)

It is a never-ending story. Whenever an emergency occurs during the Hajj season, certain parties blame Saudi Arabia who, nevertheless, continues to give pilgrims top priority. The Kingdom spends about 10 percent of its income on providing services to Mecca and Medina. Moreover, it considers hosting more than 1.5 million Muslim pilgrims each year an honor, not a handout. It is an honor not just for the rulers and the government of Saudi Arabia but for the 20 million Saudis. When the tragic stampede occurred in Mina, Saudi Arabia was blamed again by those who seem to have wished for the accident to happen in order to exploit it politically.

Regardless of what the investigation leads to, using the tragic accident as a pretext to destroy the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people who provide services to the pilgrims is extremely unfair. The Hajj season, at least in the past few years, did not witness any emergencies. Iran’s hostile and contradictory response to the stampede that occurred on Thursday is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is the response of a country like Turkey whose top religious affairs official issued a provocative statement demanding an international conference on “ways to secure pilgrims.” This was followed by remarks by Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish Prime Minister, in which he said that stampedes were frequent in Hajj despite the fact that Thursday’s stampede was the first to happen since 1990. So, how can he say it is a frequent phenomenon? He also called on Saudi Arabia to learn from “past experiences.” In fact, I do not know what Davutoğlu meant by “past experiences” unless he thinks the Hajj takes place somewhere else other than Mecca! Later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to calm things a little bit by saying that he refuses to hold Saudi Arabia responsible and praising its organization of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. Moreover, the Vice President of the ruling Justice and Development Party claimed that his country can organize the Hajj better than Saudi Arabia.

The question remains: Has the Saudi state stopped improving the Hajj season? The Kingdom has continued to improve Hajj services year after year and everyone who has performed Hajj in recent years would testify to this. In a speech on Thursday Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz said: “Regardless of the investigation results, the improvement of the methods and mechanisms of the Hajj season will not stop. We have instructed the concerned entities to re-evaluate the current policy and the distribution of responsibilities.”

On the other hand, the Saudis themselves have never stopped demanding to improve the Hajj season. Local Saudi media over the past years never hesitated to criticize problems and propose plans whether they came from inside or outside Saudi Arabia. And the Saudi government has often welcomed these constructive efforts that aim to improve services to visitors to Mecca and Medina. This is of course different from politicizing emergency incidents.

There is a difference between constructive criticism that aims to improve performance and destruction of efforts in an attempt to make political gains.