2016 Hajj Stampede Concerns

hajjThe annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia has arrived.  This year it’s set to commence on Friday, Sept. 9 and will conclude on Wednesday, September 14.  Crowds estimated in the realm of two million will descend upon its holiest cities.

Last year’s Hajj was exceptionally problematic.  This could be the understatement of the century.  According to Saudi officials, a stampede resulted in the deaths of 769 pilgrims.  Yet the Associated Press recorded the number of fatalities at 2,411, nearly 3x that number.  Some estimates went even higher.  Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir claimed there would be a transparent investigation.

“We will reveal the facts when they emerge, and we will not hold anything back. If mistakes were made, those who made them will be held accountable, and we will make sure that we will learn from this in order to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Transparency and accountability?  The fact that a year later there’s still an irreconcilable discrepancy in the death toll is cause for serious concern.  Saudi officials placed the blame upon foreign visitors, language barriers and their inability to follow directions.  Contrarily, the Saudi government reportedly beheaded 28 people it deemed “responsible.”  It’s hard to say if that will have any meaningful impact moving forward.  Nonetheless, this year features several improvements designed to enhance public safety.  An estimated 17,000 security personnel and police officers will be assigned to help regulate crowd flow.  An additional 800 surveillance cameras have also been installed.

Here are two significant changes.  Both of them should raise a red flag.

The symbolic stoning of the devil will be performed as usual over three days beginning September 11 (not so sure I like the symbolism for this year’s “coincidental” date, but I’ll leave that one for the conspiracy theorists).  Incidentally, it’s also opening Sunday for the National Football League regular season — 9 simultaneous 1 o’clock games, not to mention 14 overlapping MLB games.  Hmmm, I guess every country has their own unique rituals.  However, back in the kingdom, there will be no stoning allowed from 6:00 to 10:30 am on the first day, from 2:00 to 6:00 pm on the second day and from 10:30 am to 2:00 pm on the final day.

Saudi ministry undersecretary Hussain al-Sharif claimed, “This procedure will enable the pilgrims to throw stones easily and will prevent any stampede that may result from overcrowding.”  Forgive me, but that sounds like a bit of an over-simplification.  Note: the most customary Saudi response to past stampedes and loss of life has always been somewhat fatalistic.  It tends to go something like this.  “What will be done, will be done.  The will of Allah will not be questioned.”   I’m not so sure that line of reasoning is of much comfort to those whose family and friends lost loved ones.  After all, an hour of protracted crush asphyxiation, death via bodily compression akin to drowning in air, is not a particularly enjoyable way to perish.

While I’m not an expert on the Hajj, you need not be a wise cleric to realize that shortening the time frame by a total of 12 hours over the course of 3 days could have a potentially dangerous impact on crowd movement.  Wouldn’t participants feel hurried or grow anxious if they can’t satisfactorily complete the most sacred rituals?  Wouldn’t strict adherence to cut-off times exacerbate the conditions on the ground?  And the decision to drastically shift the 4 hour block of time on each day leaves me bewildered.  I’m not sure why you’d want to create alternating time constraints which could potentially be a source for confusion.

But here’s the biggest cause for concern.  This year, Saudi Arabia will be mandating electronic identification bracelets for all pilgrims.

band1

The water-resistant bands will contain personal and medical information as well as their country of origin.  This is designed to help authorities assist in the “identification process” (likely after they’re dead… as the majority of past stampede victims are found completely naked… since their clothing and sandals were forcibly ripped from their bodies).

Regardless, the wrist bands will be connected to GPS (global positioning system) and instruct worshipers on the timing of prayers.  There will be prayer “alerts” and even a multi-lingual help desk designed to aid non-Arabic speaking pilgrims.  While engaged in prayer, the GPS system utilizes a built in compass designed to instruct people which direction to face.

It would appear the Saudi government’s objective is to orchestrate and micro-manage crowd movement.  Not to state the obvious, but their track record hasn’t been so great.

Another observation — the bracelets are manufactured by G4S, a British security consortium with alleged ties to Israeli spy agencies.  The nation of Israel would likely benefit from increased political friction and military tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  And there’s currently a growing rift between the two governments, much of it stemming from Iran’s recent allegations regarding last year’s calamity.

“The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers — instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst, they murdered them,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement on his website marking the anniversary of the disaster.  Tehran directly blames the deaths of 464 Iranian pilgrims on Saudi mismanagement and deliberate negligence.

Now here’s a question you might ask — is there a universal, generic variable which could directly impact the Hajj?   One that has never been acknowledged or put to the test.  Like say… oh, I dunno… hijacked planes intentionally crashing into buildings.  Could wireless communication be used to deliberately spark a mass panic, resulting in a human stampede?

What if someone decides it’s time for payback?  Have you ever heard of “killing two birds with one stone?”  Hint: the great satan (America) and the authoritarian collaborative Sunnis (Saudi Arabia).

But the most vexing.  Someone please tell me.  Why, in the name of Allah, would you entrust Saudi Arabia as the testing ground for technological experiments in the field of crowd safety?  This is a matter of potentially enormous humanitarian consequence.  Seriously, this backwards dictatorship, a government with possibly the worst human rights record on the globe, is gonna supervise the electronic monitoring of the largest gathering of human beings on the planet earth.  Does any of this sound like it makes any sense whatsoever?

Considering the government’s recurring gross negligence amid its proudly defiant stampede tradition, year after year after year after year, how could this possibly be a good idea?

Judging from its history, Saudi Arabia is not the best candidate.  And Mina and Mecca ain’t the ideal locations.  If there’s nefarious intent or vocational incompetence within their communications infrastructure, this strikes me as the ultimate opportunity to perpetrate an “artificially generated stampede,” or even more likely, a worst case scenario “dominipede” (multiple, simultaneous stampedes).

Perhaps I should relax.  I’m probably being a tad presumptive and jumping to conclusions.  After all, the Middle East is a pretty peaceful place these days.  Not many people wishing to do harm unto others.  And there’s minimal geopolitical tension or religious divisiveness.  Now I will admit, there has been an occasional suicide bomber seeking martyrdom.  But for the most part, it’s been a relatively tranquil region.

Well, except while the human race has been there!  Spanning from the Garden of Eden to the present.  Or if you don’t care for the religious context, try the Assyrians of Mesopotamia up until September 11, 2016 and beyond.

Arsenio Hall’s brand of humor never did it for me.  But I do think this qualifies as one of those “things that make you go hmmm.”  Feel free to share this article with anyone who will be in a large, confined crowd on the 15th year anniversary of 9/11.

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