Craig Webb, Security and Political Risk Analyst at Healix International, explains everything you need to know about the Hajj – an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the largest annual gathering in the world.
In 2016, 1.8 million people attended the Hajj, including 1.3 million foreign nationals. This was the lowest attendance figure for several years owing to ongoing infrastructural work at religious sites in the area and the implementation of a 20% reduction in foreign pilgrim quotas in 2013. A relaxation of these restrictions will likely lead to a significant increase in attendance figures this year. Mecca (Saudi Arabia) and is the largest annual gathering in the world. The Hajj 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 Wednesday 30th August and conclude on Monday 4th September, during which time over two million pilgrims 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. 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 10-year ban.
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 require an accompanying male or ‘Mohram’. Upon arrival, pilgrims exchange their passports for ID cards and wristbands with the Pilgrim Guides Association which retains the passports until departure.
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 condemned poor crowd management planning as the cause of 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. Measures including the use of 4-metre-high fencing and the closure of possible escape routes due to a prince’s procession are believed to have exacerbated the situation.
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. Meanwhile, AQAP’s modus operandi has mostly avoided directly targeting Islamic sites, though the group retains an expressed intent to target foreign nationals.
The Saudi security forces are engaged in ongoing efforts to intercept and disrupt plots by both IS and AQAP cells operating countrywide. Most recently, on 23rd June, they intercepted a plot to target the Grand Mosque in Mecca; a suspected IS-linked militant exchanged gunfire with security personnel before detonating explosives in a nearby residential area. The authorities detained an additional five suspects, though further details including the timing of the potential attack were not disclosed. This is not an isolated incident and the US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) cites 34 reported ‘terror attacks’ during 2016.
Health/Medical: 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 available to pilgrims in Mecca/Medina including 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 with temperatures reaching heights of 50 degrees Celsius; typically, the rate of heat-related illness peaks on the 9th 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. Specifically, this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has also warned of the possible spread of a Cholera epidemic from neighbouring Yemen during the Hajj, with pilgrims potentially acting as carriers for the disease.
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 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.
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
The National Tawafa Establishment for Pilgrims of Turkey and Muslims of Europe, Americas, and Australia
Telephone numbers from within Saudi Arabia: 012-542-7003 x101
Street Address: Makkah Al Mukarramah, Al Nuzha Road, near Alnuzha Bridge
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