Iran to Saudi Arabia: You Don’t Deserve to Organize the Hajj
Iran is blaming Saudi Arabia for Thursday's stampede at Mecca. But will their rhetoric change how it's organized next year?
Carrying black banners and chanting “death to the al Saud family,” thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran after Friday prayers this week to protest the Saudi “mismanagement” they claim led to Thursday’s deadly stampede just outside of Mecca. The incident killed more than 700 people — including at least 131 Iranians — and took place during one of the final rites of the annual pilgrimage, or hajj.
And now Iranian officials and lawmakers are calling on Saudi Arabia to explain how the tragedy took place, or give up their rights to organizing the yearly event, which brings more than two million Muslims to Mecca — Islam’s holiest city — each year.
“It’s not the first time that the Saudi government has shown its incompetence during the hajj,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a member of Iran’s parliamentary committee on national security, said after the stampede. “Two tragic incidents have taken place in a short time, the Saudi government is not capable of managing hajj pilgrimage.”
The Saudi government took extensive precautions to avoid disasters during the yearly pilgrimage, including installing water stations to avoid mass dehydration and expanding mosques to control crowds. But even the preparations themselves turned deadly earlier this month when Iranians were among the more than 100 killed when a construction crane fell and crushed a crowd gathered for Friday prayers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
This year, more than 100,000 police and other security officers, as well as 25,000 medical professionals, were deployed to avoid this type of incident.
Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy, said that although the Iranian government has a right to be angered by their civilian deaths, the Shiite powerhouse may also see the incident as an opportunity bash their regional rival, Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The two countries are on opposite sides of the Yemeni civil war, where Saudi airstrikes are targeting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. At the same time, Maloney acknowledged that “Iranians are keenly aware that access to the pilgrimage is ultimately controlled by the Saudis and escalation over this particular incident might not be worth” exacerbating tension between the two countries.
But as Saudi King Salman announced an official investigation into what caused the deaths, at least one senior Iranian cleric called on Saudi Arabia to hand over the responsibility of organizing the yearly pilgrimage to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an international body they claim would be better suited to address the causes of deadly disasters in recent years.
The chances of that happening? According to Maloney, just about zero.
“It’s central to their legitimacy as a ruling system,” she told Foreign Policy. “The sovereign expectations of a government that is both religious in its nature and controls the territory of the holy sites would make it impossible to really imagine any alternative mechanism for managing this kind of massive undertaking every year.”
But that doesn’t mean Iran won’t try. Even before the 1979 revolution, Iranian pilgrims were encouraged by their government to use the hajj as an opportunity to push back “against monarchical systems like the Saudi royal family,” Maloney said. Iran’s response to this particular incident, she added, has actually been “more temperate” than might have been expected considering their rhetoric after past incidents at the hajj. When hundreds were killed in the 1980s, for instance, “it led to real strains between the two countries,” she said.
Other criticism Thursday and Friday was less politically motivated. Some Iranian officials were more concerned about reports their medical forces were barred from accessing injured civilians, and African leaders took issue with Saudi Prince Khaled al-Faisal’s initial claim that the stampede was caused by “some pilgrims from African nationalities.”
At least 30 pilgrims from Mali and five from Senegal were reported dead, but on Friday, Muhammadu Sanusi II, emir of Kano State in Nigeria’s majority Muslim north and head of Nigeria’s hajj delegation, said the stampede was avoidable and Africans were not at fault.
“We are therefore urging the Saudi authorities not to apportion blame to the pilgrims for not obeying instructions,” he told the BBC.