The world's 1.6 billion Muslims all are trying to make it to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes. Here's how Saudi Arabia controls the flow of pilgrims.
- By Benjamin SolowayBenjamin Soloway is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He worked previously in Indonesia as a web editor and Princeton in Asia journalism fellow at the Jakarta Globe. He has also lived in Brazil and Turkey. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, the New Republic, USA Today, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He studied history at Wesleyan University.
Update, Sept. 24, 2015: This post has been updated to account for recent news.*
Some 3 million Muslims are making their way to Mecca this week to perform the hajj. For the travelers, it is a pilgrimage that marks their observance of one of the Five Pillars of Islam — the fulfillment of a once-in-a-lifetime obligation. But for the Saudi government, it is a mammoth logistical challenge.
Hajj is among the largest annual gatherings anywhere. Weary pilgrims from nearly every country and territory, some of whom spend their entire lives scrimping and saving for the journey, meet 12-hour processing lines at King Abdulaziz International Airport’s dedicated hajj terminal, built in the likeness of a Bedouin tent. Hajj-related activities such as circumambulating the Kaaba at Mecca and symbolically stoning the devil at Mina, take place over an area of 291 square miles, requiring the government to coordinate accommodations, food and water, medical services, transportation, security, and deal with whatever problems or emergencies arise. The influx strains the Kingdom’s infrastructure to its limits. And yet on the scale of global Islam, 3 million people are a drop in the bucket. Over 23 percent of the world’s population is Muslim — some 1.6 billion people and growing, according to the Pew Research Center — and all are obliged to make the journey once in a lifetime if able. To keep the human tide at bay, the government enforces a strict quota system. Who decides who gets to go?
It varies from country to country: The Saudi government sets quotas for the number of citizens from each country who can go on hajj every year — but then it’s up to the countries themselves to decide how they fill those quotas. In some countries, the process is rife with corruption and inequity.
Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims by far, gets the largest allotment: 178,000 this year, down from 211,000 in 2013 (the Saudi government lowered quotas for countries across the board that year to make room for multi-year construction projects that will eventually expand the capacity of the major religious sites). In general, the numbers show that the Saudi government tries to open around one spot per 1,000 Muslims in a country, although in Indonesia and many other countries the fraction is considerably smaller, especially since the recent reductions.
As in many countries with large Muslim populations and a high demand for the hajj, the Indonesian government has put in place an elaborate system for determining who goes when. Aspiring pilgrims who declare their intention to perform hajj must pay at least $2,000. That’s almost a full year’s pay at minimum wage in Jakarta, the capital, where minimum wage is higher than anywhere else in the country, or almost three year’s pay for the more than 43 percent of Indonesians who live on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank data from 2011. The payment secures a spot on a waitlist, which varies in length by region: 12 years at best, 17 at worst. Meanwhile, the money goes into a government-run hajj fund controlled by the Religious Affairs Ministry. In 2014, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, head of the Islamist-leaning United Development Party, was implicated in a graft investigation connected to management of the hajj fund.
Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, the countries with the second, third, and fourth-largest Muslim populations, respectively, have their own systems, and each face their own share of quota woes. The Pakistani government conducts a drawing from applications, placing the tens of thousands of people who miss the cut on a waitlist. But petitioners have accused the government of apportioning parts of the quota among various private tour operators in exchange for bribes. One in four Indian Muslims who wanted to make the pilgrimage this year were permitted to go, based on a complicated system of sub-quotas and lotteries at the state and territory level. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had to give up most of the more than five thousand hajj spots it had reserved for its own use — an inexplicably large allotment for dignitaries in a system that saw ordinary Indians turned away. And 30,000 Bangladeshis were turned away this year, even though a third had already paid, after a government website mistakenly allowed too many people to register.
Even countries with relatively small Muslim populations are not exempt from hajj-related struggles: After the Saudi government reduced South Africa’s quota from 2,500 to 2,000 in 2013, wait times ballooned to six years.
Inevitably, some pilgrims try to get around the restrictions. According to the U.S. State Department, non-Saudis who perform hajj without a permit face immediate deportation and a 10-year ban on returning to Saudi Arabia. Women under 45, permitted or no, must travel with a close male relative or face the same.
One motivation for the quota system is concern over the potential for rampant loss of human life under hot, crowded, chaotic conditions. History bears out these concerns: Between 1990 and 2006, thousands died in hajj-related stampedes: In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims, mostly from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, died during a single stampede in a pedestrian tunnel as people pushed to get inside, out of the 112-degree desert heat. On Thursday morning, a stampede in Mina lead to at least 717 deaths and 863 injuries — the deadliest hajj accident since 1990.*
Hundreds of pilgrims died in other types of incidents: A clash between Iranian anti-U.S. protestors and security forces in 1987 killed 402, a terrorist bombing in 1989 killed one person and injured 16 (the Saudi government later beheaded 16 Kuwaiti Shia radicals accused of carrying out the attack with backing from Iran, which Iran has denied), and fires in 1997 killed more than 340. Just this month, the Saudi government banned construction company Binladin Group from taking on new projects after one of its cranes, while working on a project to expand hajj sites to fit more pilgrims, collapsed and crushed more than 100 people. Not to mention public health worries: Beyond the hundreds who succumb each year to heatstroke or preexisting conditions, Saudi health officials are now especially wary of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, a deadly illness that has killed hundreds in Saudi Arabia since 2012.
Crane accident and MERS aside, conditions had seemed to become safer in recent years. But Thursday’s disaster shattered that record of improvement, and the Saudi government will face further logistics and safety challenges, as it plans to expand hajj numbers drastically in the years to come.
The government is deploying 100,000 security personnel for the 2015 hajj. Last year, in addition to the 17 hospitals and 129 primary healthcare centers in the area, 106 medical teams deployed among the pilgrims throughout the week of the pilgrimage.
In 1927, just 100,000 pilgrims performed the hajj, completing arduous journeys by land and sea. That number grew thirtyfold as populations expanded and travel became easier, safer, and more affordable. “The hajj combines an ancient history with a global reach, and it also combines immense size with a cosmopolitan diversity that is unique in the history of the world,” writes historian Eric Tagliacozzo in his book, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. He calls the pilgrimage a “massive conveyor belt of human beings.” That mass will only continue to grow: the Saudi government is planning to issue quotas to accommodate five million pilgrims next year, according to Saudi Hajj Minister Bandar Hajjar. In the coming five years, it’s hoping to boost that yearly number to 30 million.
Photo credit: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images