Saudi Arabia tightens up hajj planning to avoid repeat of 2015 disaster

Source: The Guardian

A year after the worst hajj disaster in a generation, Saudi Arabia is issuing pilgrims with electronic bracelets and using more surveillance cameras to avoid a repeat of the crush that killed hundreds of people and damaged already strained ties with Iran.

The Muslim pilgrimage, which starts on Friday and will bring 2 million people to Islam’s most sacred sites in Mecca, will also be a focus of concerns about militant violence after a suicide bomber killed four soldiers in early July in the nearby city of Medina, Islam’s second holiest.

Custodian of Islam’s most revered places, Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on organising hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once in their lifetime.

Its prestige was damaged by the 2015 disaster, in which Riyadh said 769 pilgrims were killed, the highest hajj death toll since a crush in 1990. Counts of fatalities by countries who repatriated bodies showed that more than 2,000 people may have died in the crush, more than 400 of them Iranians.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, blamed the disaster on organisers’ incompetence. An official Saudi inquiry has yet to be published, but authorities suggested at the time that some pilgrims ignored crowd-control rules.

This year, efforts are being made to strengthen crowd management. Thousands of civil servants, security personnel and medics have been conducting drills in preparation for the pilgrimage.

The kingdom says it is deploying extra staff and increasing coordination with hajj missions from pilgrims’ home countries to ensure worshippers comply with agreed schedules for performing various rituals. Hundreds of new surveillance cameras had been installed at the Grand Mosque.

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