Saudi ‘state did not fail’ after hundreds die during hajj

A senior official in Saudi Arabia has defended the management of the hajj pilgrimage after various countries reported more than 1,100 deaths, many attributed to high heat.

“The state did not fail, but there was a misjudgement on the part of people who did not appreciate the risks,” the official said in the government’s first comments on the fatalities.

A tally of official statements and reports from diplomats involved in the response puts the toll at 1,126. More than 50% of those who died were from Egypt.

The official said the Saudi government had confirmed 577 deaths for the two busiest days of hajj: Saturday, when pilgrims gathered for hours of prayers in the blazing sun on Mount Arafat, and Sunday, when they participated in the “stoning of the devil” ritual in Mina.

“This happened amid difficult weather conditions and a very harsh temperature,” they said, while acknowledging that the 577 figure was partial and did not cover all of the pilgrimage, which formally ended on Wednesday.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims with the means must complete it at least once before they die.

Saudi officials had earlier said that 1.8 million pilgrims took part this year, a similar total to last year, and that 1.6 million came from abroad.

Estimated 400,000 permit-less pilgrims took part

Hajj permits are allocated to countries on a quota system and distributed to individuals via a lottery.

Even for those who can obtain them, the steep costs spur many people to attempt the pilgirmage without a permit, though they risk arrest and deportation if caught by security forces.

The irregular route, which can save them thousands of euro, has become increasingly popular since 2019 when Saudi Arabia introduced a general tourism visa, making it easier to enter the Gulf kingdom.

Before this year’s hajj, officials said they had cleared more than 300,000 would-be pilgrims from Mecca who did not have hajj permits.

But later, the Saudi official said: “An order came from above that we allow people who arrived at the gates of the holy places” to participate.

“We can estimate the number of the unregistered pilgrims at around 400,000.

“Almost all of them from one nationality,” the official added, an apparent reference to Egypt.

Arab diplomats said earlier this week that Egyptians accounted for 658 deaths, 630 of them unregistered pilgrims.

A US State Department spokesman said that “multiple” US citizens died in hajj.

“We can confirm the deaths of multiple US citizens in Saudi Arabia”, the spokesman said, without providing further details.

Read more:
Hajj death toll from extreme heat passes 1,000

Deaths of hajj pilgrims highlight how extreme heat kills

Hajj, whose timing is determined by the Islamic lunar calendar, fell again this year during the scorching Saudi summer.

Temperatures reached 51.8C at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Monday, according to the national meteorological centre.

Unregistered pilgrims did not have access to amenities meant to make the pilgrimage more bearable, including air-conditioned tents.

Unregistered Egyptians said that, in some cases, they struggled to access hospitals or hail ambulances for loved ones, some of whom ended up dying.

The pilgrims also said they could not access official hajj buses – the only transportation around the holy sites – without paying exorbitant, off-the-books fees.

Forced to walk for many kilometres under the blazing sun, some reported seeing motionless bodies on the roadside and people collapsing because of apparent exhaustion.

The senior Saudi official said there was no blanket ban on unregistered pilgrims availing of the buses.

“There is no ban on them using the buses but these buses are prepared for the registered pilgrims that we know are coming.”

The unregistered pilgrims “walk along bus routes that are not set up with food or medical services like ambulances. It’s a highway for the buses,” the official added.

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