Everything you need to know about the Hajj – an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and the largest annual gathering in the world.
The Haj is one of the largest annual gatherings in the world. It is a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims, subject to certain exemptions including economic considerations, health and age. This year’s Hajj is set to commence on Friday 9th August and conclude on 14th August, during which time over two million pilgrims, including over 1.5 million foreign nationals, are expected to visit a number of holy sites in Mecca and nearby Medina.
Those attending the Hajj require a valid Hajj-specific visa, which allows travel between Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. Pilgrims who have performed Hajj in the past 5 years will not be granted a visa, unless they are accompanying disabled pilgrims. Travel outside of these areas is not permitted on a Hajj visa and failure to comply with these directives can result in harsh punishments including deportation and a ten-year ban from entering the country.
Similarly, travellers are required to use a government-approved travel agent to secure entry, accommodation and use of transportation services. Likewise, attendees must provide proof of meningococcal vaccination and females under the age of 45 require an accompanying male or ‘Mohram’. Women over the age of 45 are allowed to attend as part of a tour group if they have submitted a letter from a ‘Mohram’ stating they permit the female to travel. Upon arrival, pilgrims exchange their passports for ID cards and wristbands with the Pilgrim Guides Association which retains the passports until departure.
In 2018, the government of Saudi Arabia implemented international pilgrim quotas to restrict the number of incoming pilgrims from each country and help ease previous issues with overcrowding. The majority of visitors fly into Jeddah’s King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), where there is a dedicated Hajj terminal, but many may also arrive at Medina’s Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz Airport (MED).
Safety and Security Considerations
Overcrowding: Due to the number of attendees, overcrowding and resultant stampedes can pose a significant risk to pilgrims. In 2015, a stampede close to Mina’s famed ‘Tent City’ killed over 2,000 people, and international commentators blamed poor crowd management planning for the disaster. The incident occurred shortly before the Hajj’s final rite, The Stoning of the Devil, when two columns of pilgrims converged at an intersection close to the Jamarat Bridge. The use of 4-metre-high fencing and the closure of possible escape routes to facilitate a prince’s procession are believed to have compounded the situation.
Since this incident, Saudi authorities have implemented more stringent crowd control measures, such as staggering schedules for performing rituals and distributing electronic wristbands to track the flow of people. There has also been construction of escalators, elevators and moving walkways in order to try and solve the issue of overcrowding.
Terrorism: There is a persistent risk of terrorism throughout Saudi Arabia, where the primary threat actor is the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Similarly, al-Qaeda’s regional Yemen-based affiliate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a threat. Historically, IS has sought to target Shia Muslim sites and celebrations in an attempt to stoke sectarian tensions and sow instability. For this reason, the Hajj, which attracts both Sunni and Shia pilgrims, makes an extremely attractive target for the group. Though the group retains an expressed intent to target foreign nationals, AQAP has previously avoided directly targeting Islamic sites.
In June 2017, the authorities disrupted a plot to attack the Great Mosque in Mecca. The attacker, who was likely linked to IS, was wearing explosives when he was stopped by security personnel. Terrorist actors in Saudi Arabia have used a wide ranging use of methods to carry out attacks, such as increasingly sophisticated and long-range ballistic missiles, powerful IEDs and small scale shootings.
Saudi officials claimed in May 2019 that they had intercepted Houthi missiles fired towards Mecca, although this was denied by the Houthis. The Saudis also levelled similar accusations at the Houthis in 2017 and claimed they had intercepted missiles 43 miles (69km) south of Mecca. While the Houthis regularly target southern Saudi Arabia and have shown their ability to reach cities further north, the Saudi missile defence systems are highly capable and attacks directly targeting the Hajj remain unlikely.
Safety and Security Measures
The Saudi authorities have implemented a number of measures to address safety and security concerns in recent years. The government has spent up to $60 billion to increase capacity at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, while other infrastructural improvements, including the launch of a new high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina, are intended to ease congestion. Another notable effort is the deployment of over 100,000 security personnel during the event. These individuals are tasked with overseeing a range of tasks from crowd control to crisis response. Meanwhile, over 1,000 new CCTV cameras have been installed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, bringing the total number of cameras in Mecca and Medina to over 5,000. Special Forces police units at a central command centre will monitor these cameras 24/7. Efforts to improve accommodation standards are ongoing, and Mina’s Tent City now comprises of over 160,000 air-conditioned tents and access to improved sanitation facilities.
Following the 2015 stampede, the authorities introduced a new e-bracelet, which all pilgrims are now required to wear. The bracelet is primarily a crowd control measure, allowing the authorities to accurately measure congestion and prevent ‘bottlenecking’. However, the bracelets also provide GPS guidance to attendees along with timing schedules, personal information, including medical information and direct access to a multi-lingual help desk.
Healthcare and Medical Considerations
The primary health concerns facing travellers are respiratory infections. The risk factors associated with these conditions are intensified by living conditions during the Hajj which include sleeping in the open, and often extremely dusty air. Owing to this, pneumonia is the most common cause of hospital admissions during the Hajj period. Meanwhile, the rate of human-to-human transmission of other respiratory conditions including tuberculosis and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) increases during the Hajj. Though access to medical facilities is generally good during the Hajj period (eight hospitals are available to pilgrims in Mecca/Medina, which include intensive care units and state-of-the-art surgical wards), MERS retains an overall fatality rate of 35%.
Other health/medical concerns include those arising from heat exposure, as temperatures can reach highs of 50 degrees Celsius. The rate of heat-related illness typically peaks on the ninth day during a nine-mile walk to Arafat. Other health issues arise from rituals undertaken by pilgrims including nasal ablution or ‘istinshaaq’, the practice of rinsing the nose before performing various rituals, and heightened exposure to zoonotic diseases during animal sacrifice. Mosquito-borne diseases, the use of unclean blades during shaving rituals at the end of the Hajj and often inadequate sanitation facilities also increase the risk of falling ill. Saudi Arabia has also suspended Hajj visas for travellers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo over fears related to the spread of Ebola.
- Travellers should ensure they have a valid Hajj-specific visa and book return flights into either Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) or Medina’s Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz Airport (MED) which both have dedicated Hajj terminals.
- Make all transportation and accommodation bookings through government-approved travel agents, details of which can be found on the relevant Saudi Arabian embassy website.
- In order to comply with Saudi visa requirements, obtain proof of meningococcal vaccination. We also strongly recommend that all travellers check that they are up to date with routine immunisations alongside vaccinations against Hepatitis A, B and Polio.
- Once in-country, abide by official directives and remain calm and compliant in all dealings with the authorities.
- Maintain high levels of personal hygiene and ensure that hands are washed regularly, particularly before meals.
- Obtain food and water from official and reputable providers.
- Travellers should exercise higher levels of vigilance than they would normally do in their home countries. Be alert to suspicious packages and behaviour, and report any such activity to a security guard, member of staff or a police officer. If travellers ever feel uncomfortable about a situation, they should vacate the area as a precautionary measure.
Travellers should take note of emergency contact details and keep a physical copy on their person at all times:
Emergency Services: Ambulance: 997 Police: 999 Fire: 998
Lost Pilgrims Office: 012-530-8813
Health Affairs Office: 012-530-8812