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As Saudi and Iran trade political insults over hajj deaths, focus on the loss of life

During the final days of this year's hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah last month, two large waves of pilgrims converged on a narrow road. The crowding was so severe that it caused people to suffocate and eventually to start trampling one another in their desperation to get clear. According to officials in Saudi Arabia, at least 769 people died and 900 were injured, but the governments of India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Iran have all disputed this, claiming that the real figure is far higher. The volume of people making the pilgrimage was not unprecedented; in previous years, more than 3 million have travelled to Makkah without any major problems.

Able-bodied Muslims are required to make the five-day pilgrimage once in their lifetime if they can afford it, and each year is a logistical challenge for Saudi Arabia, the country which is home to the two holiest sites in Islam. This year, there were around 2 million pilgrims from 180 different countries on the hajj. People from all over the world were killed in this human tragedy on an enormous scale.

In addition to questions over the death toll, with individual countries saying that the total of their citizens killed far exceeds the number supplied by Saudi Arabia, there have been complaints over delays in foreign diplomats being allowed access to the victims. In particular, the tragedy has fed into the bitter animosity between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. The two countries are embroiled in a regional cold war, backing opposing sides in the wars in Yemen and Syria. Iran has, perhaps predictably, been leading the international criticism of the Saudi government.

Indeed, Tehran has alleged that the overall number of hajj deaths is more than 1,000. It has been confirmed that 464 Iranian pilgrims died in the crush, and much of the political recriminations have centred on Iran's wish to take the bodies home promptly. This week, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, warned of "harsh" measures if the Saudis do not repatriate Iran's dead promptly. His comments were broadcast on Iranian state TV: "The Saudi government is not carrying out its obligation to repatriate and in some cases shows slyness. The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far showed self-restraint, observed Islamic decency and brotherly respect in the Islamic world, but they should know that Iran's hand is superior to many others and has more capabilities. If Iran wants to react to disturbing and sinister elements, their situation will not be good."

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir responded by accusing Iran of "playing politics" with the tragedy. He called on the Islamic Republic to wait for the outcome of an investigation ordered by King Salman.

Even apart from the contentious question of burying the dead, the tragedy raises serious questions about Saudi Arabia. Much of the kingdom's international legitimacy in the wider Muslim world rests on its ability to administer the holy sites; one of the king's titles is "custodian of the two holy places [Makkah and Madinah]". The significance of this role for Saudi Arabia inevitably means that the human tragedy of the hajj deaths is also a political event. And equally inevitably the incident has prompted outrage as well as an outpouring of grief, accentuated by the deaths of 100 people earlier in the month when they were hit by a falling crane at the Grand Mosque. Perhaps aware of international accusations of incompetence, Saudi officials have blamed the pilgrims for the crush, suggesting that some moved "without following instructions by the relevant authorities". They are keen to avoid the charge that Saudi Arabia is incapable of using its wealth to manage the holy sites efficiently and safely.

Iran's anger about the huge loss of life amongst its citizens is legitimate, as is the call for bodies to be returned promptly. But it is also clear that the republic is seeking to exploit these questions over Saudi Arabia's legitimacy in order to undermine its regional rival. The aim is to paint the kingdom as a country so dysfunctional that it cannot ensure the safety of worshippers in the Muslim world's holiest cities.

This was not the first such disaster during a hajj, although it was on a greater scale than previous incidents. There was a similar event linked to overcrowding in 2006, and a very serious one in 1990. Of course, the stampede was caused partly by the numbers of people – there is no logistical challenge quite like the hajj anywhere else in the world — but there were other contributing factors too: an ongoing construction boom in Makkah, poor communication and insufficient emergency planning. The response from Saudi officials to blame the victims only serves to prove allegations of a lack of accountability. Nevertheless, as political recriminations are traded, the huge loss of life must remain in focus, if only so that steps are taken to prevent another tragedy during future pilgrimages.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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