2019 Hajj Security Outlook: What to Look Out For
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia (also known as Hajj) will occur on Aug. 9-14; the exact dates, however depend on the local lunar sightings. The Hajj is one of the mandatory Five Pillars of Islam and every Muslim is required to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Around 2.5 million Muslims are expected to partake in the Hajj this year, posing security challenges for Saudi Arabia.
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In this blog, we discuss the risks associated with the Hajj, provide safety advice and how Saudi Arabia is preparing to keep pilgrims safe before, during and after their pilgrimage.
Around three million pilgrims gather in Mecca every year, making the Hajj one of the largest gatherings in the world. With the vast amount of pilgrims coming into Saudi Arabia, the country’s security personnel’s main concern will be crowd control and management. More specifically, the significant risk of a stampede is something that the country keeps in mind as it prepares for the pilgrimage. The chance of injury and even death increases when there is a big number of people moving from site to site in a limited space, as is the case in the Hajj.
Numerous stampedes have occurred since 1990. One such incident was the 2015 Mina stampede, where 2,300 pilgrims were killed in Mina as groups of people moved toward the Jamaraat Bridge. Not only that but in 2006, 346 people died during the “stoning of the devil” ritual in Mina. The causes of these incidents resulted from groups of people creating bottlenecks. However, all of this can be avoided with the proper security precautions and preparations, which we discuss later in the blog.
Saudi officials have seen periodic outbreaks of traveler’s diarrhea as well as respiratory and bloodborne diseases. They have suggested that people with pre-existing heart or respiratory conditions planning to participate in the Hajj this year may want to avoid large events. Saudi authorities have mandated several immunizations in response to protect the health and safety of pilgrims and residents alike. The immunizations cover against a variety of illnesses from meningococcal meningitis to seasonal influenza and polio.
The risk of disease transmission increases especially considering the fact that the Hajj attracts pilgrims from more than 70 countries. Large groups of people pose an increased risk of physical trauma, cardiac issues, dehydration, heat-related illnesses and acute mental distress. Cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of death for Hajj pilgrims and as such, special precautions should be taken to protect against these risks. Physical trauma is another area of concern for many reasons. Despite the country’s vehicle ban, motor vehicle accidents are still common. Once a stampede begins, there is little one can do to stop it. Untreated trauma to the head usually results in death. Because of this, pilgrims should avoid densely populated areas and perform rituals during nonpeak hours.
Along with diseases, there is the risk of the transmission of food-and-waterborne disease during the Hajj. Pilgrims should only drink recognized brands of sealed water bottles or boiled/chemically treated water. It is advised to wash hands regularly with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially before handling or eating food.
The risk is not only for pilgrims; non-pilgrim travelers may come in contact with Hajj pilgrims in transit. As such, all travelers should be aware of the increased risk of infectious disease associated with the Hajj season. Pilgrims may carry a variety of diseases such as measles or polio, but this can all be prevented by ensuring you are full vaccinated against both routine and exotic diseases before travel.
Anyone traveling to Mecca during this time should contact their travel health provider at least six weeks in advance to get information on required vaccinations prior to arrival. Make sure to reconfirm accommodations before the Hajj as hotels will be extremely crowded in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina from now until mid-December. On that note, take the extra step and reconfirm flights and business meetings as many government and corporate offices will close or reduce their business hours during the Hajj period. Moreover, flight delays are to be expected at all major Saudi airports during this period.
Please note that when you do arrive in Saudi Arabia, photography of the following is prohibited:
- Military installations
Upon arrival, ensure that you obtain permission before taking anyone’s picture in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, make sure that you abide by the local cultural, legal and religious norms. As with any foreign place, avoid carrying large amounts of money or cash as this may make you a target for theft. Try not to wear expensive, flashy jewelry and ensure that all of your electronic devices are secure and out of sight.
Extra Security Measures
In preparation for this year’s Hajj, Saudi officials will deploy thousands of security force personnel to establish checkpoints to help with crowd control. Moreover, starting from June 28th, officials have prohibited vehicles from entering the holy city of Mecca and will continue to do so during the Hajj period. Only drivers with special permits will be allowed to enter. The country is doing this to try and ease traffic congestion in the city especially considering that thousands of buses ferry pilgrims to and from different holy sites including Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat.
The country is keen on preventing citizens and residents from entering Mecca without a permit. The Ministry of the Interior is supporting this decision and calling on the country’s citizens and residents to abide by the regulations.
Security forces released an official statement to back their decision regarding permits. The country is committed to keeping pilgrims safe and preventing exploitation of the Hajj, stating that it will not tolerate any political or sectarian distractions.
Mufti Shawqi Allam of Egypt supports the Saudi government’s efforts and services provided to the two Holy Mosques in advance of this year’s pilgrimage. He also praised the expansion of the Holy Mosque’s yard as well as the improvement projects targeting the infrastructure of the holy site.
The government has taken the extra step and established the Hajj Research Center to play a technical advisory role to the Supreme Hajj Committee and its parties. The center’s purpose is to monitor and collect information and data related to Hajj and pilgrims. With that said, the General Directorate of Passports stated that one million pilgrims have already arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj this year.
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