By Mohammed Syed
This year recorded the least amount of pilgrims to attend the Hajj in the last decade. The annual five-day pilgrimage taken by almost 1.9 million Muslims ended on Wednesday, September 14, concluding the tense anticipation in and around the Muslim world for a safe Hajj season.
Authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia saw this year’s Hajj as a recovery following the stampede last year that killed at least 760 pilgrims. The actual casualty numbers, however, could have been as high as 2,177, according to a count by the Associated Press based on official statements from attending countries and state media reports.
As a consequence of the tragedy last year, Iran and Saudi Arabia failed to reach a deal on arrangements for Iranians to attend the pilgrimage to Mecca unless their safety was ensured.
The Saudi Pilgrimage Ministry stated that the Iranian government “will be responsible in front of Allah Almighty and its people for the inability of the Iranian citizens to perform Hajj for this year.”
The ministry also said that Saudi Arabia “has stressed its categorical rejection to politicise Hajj rituals.” At least 460 Iranian pilgrims were killed in the stampede last year.
The decision to withdraw coincides with the ramping of intensity in proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria, both of which the two countries are involved in.
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah agreed to issue electronic visas to Iranians through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which acts as a representative of Saudi diplomacy in Iran. The Swiss embassy in Riyadh also vouched to take care of Iranian pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia issued electronic bracelets to attendees and also increased the use of surveillance cameras to track the flow of traffic throughout the momentous event. Thousands of civil government employees, medics, and security staff conducted emergency drills in the month before the Hajj. Hundreds of new cameras were installed in the Grand Mosque.
Saudi Arabia also expressed its commitment to create better dialogue and communication with visiting countries in order to have a smooth pilgrimage.
The Central Hajj Committee stated that more than 23,000 workers would be cleaning Mecca and other holy sites.
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics reported that 1.87 million pilgrims attended the Hajj this season. The report detailed that 1,325,372 pilgrims arrived from outside the kingdom, while 537,537 pilgrims traveled to the Hajj domestically.
143,370 pilgrims arrived from Pakistan, and 136,020 from India. A thousand Palestinian pilgrims also performed the Hajj this year as guests of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. They were said to represent the families of the martyrs in the currently occupied state of Palestine.
According to the Saudi Gazette, all the lounges of the Hajj terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, had been converted into arrival lounges from Aug. 4 to Sept. 5, and will serve as departure lounges from Sept. 17 to Oct. 16.
State media reports on the death toll of the current Hajj season are still being finalized at the moment, but 54 Pakistanis, 47 Bangladeshis, and 18 Nigerians have been reported dead so far. This, however, is typical of every Hajj season — many pilgrims die due to complications from old-age, and heart and kidney failures.
All able-bodied Muslims are expected to perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime if they have the ability and resources to do so. Hajj, an Arabic word, means “pilgrimage.” The primary focus of the journey is to remind Muslims that, regardless of nationality and material wealth, they are equal in the eyes of God.