The crushing of more than 700 people near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, the worst tragedy at the Hajj pilgrimage in a quarter century, poses the latest political challenge for a kingdom roiled by plunging oil prices and war.
Videos posted online showed dead bodies strewn across a street in Mina, a dusty encampment outside Islam’s holiest city, as other pilgrims sat in shock. The stampede at a busy intersection began at 9 a.m. on Thursday, the first day of the Eid al-Adha religious holiday.
King Salman said in a televised speech that he’s told authorities to review all arrangements for pilgrims. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who’s also the interior minister, called for an investigation.
“A lot of money has been spent in Mecca, so there will be questions about accountability,” Crispin Hawes, managing director of Teneo Intelligence, said in a phone interview. “This has the potential for a nasty political firestorm for the regime, and there will need to be a political response to what will be perceived as another egregious failure.”
Thursday’s disaster, in which at least 717 people died and more than 800 were injured according to official Saudi media, was the second surrounding the Hajj this month, despite the kingdom spending billions of dollars on expanding and securing its religious sites. The government embarked on a $21 billion program in 2011 to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque in Mecca to 2.5 million people.
About two weeks ago, a crane operated by the Saudi Binladin Group at the Grand Mosque collapsed, killing more than 100 people. The company said the accident was caused by strong winds. It has been barred from taking on new projects in the kingdom pending an investigation.
The tragedies come as Saudi Arabia under King Salman, who ascended to the throne in January, is embroiled in a deepening war in neighboring Yemen while a slump in oil prices threatens the biggest deficit in decades.
The new king has brought in his own team, most prominently his son Mohammed bin Salman, who’s in charge of defense and economic policy and is second in line to the throne. He’s behind Interior Minister Prince Mohammed, whose Civil Defense Directorate is responsible for providing security during the pilgrimage.
“There may be political ramifications because this catastrophe will be boxed together with the crane incident,” Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf States Analytics, said in response to e-mailed questions after news of the stampede, without speculating on what the effects might be.
The kingdom has been criticized for a slow response to previous crises. After more than 120 people died in heavy flooding in December 2009, which displaced more than 22,000 others, the government only announced 16 months later that it was investigating more than three hundred people over the incident.
The crush on Thursday occurred as groups of pilgrims suddenly converged on the crossroads in Mina, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported. Hundreds of emergency workers were deployed and pilgrims rerouted, it said.
Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih suggested the blame didn’t lie with official preparations for the event.
The stampede was “possibly caused by the movement of some pilgrims who didn’t follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities,” al-Falih said in a statement.
It wasn’t immediately clear where most of the dead pilgrims were from.
Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, said 95 Iranians have been confirmed dead. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared three days of national mourning. The Saudi charge d’affaires in Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, which conveyed Iran’s “strong protest” over the failure to protect pilgrims, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Indonesia said two of its citizens were among the dead, while there were reports of Pakistani fatalities.
“It’s been a bad month for the image that the Saudis are trying to project, that they can protect the holy places,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a political analyst focusing on the Gulf at Chatham House.
As the fifth and final pillar of Islam, every able-bodied adult Muslim must undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad, at least once in their lives.
Some 2 million people are taking part in this year’s pilgrimage, which began on Tuesday. There have been a number of stampedes over the years, including the deadliest in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel. Authorities modified buildings and built new bridges after more than 300 people were killed in a crush in 2006.
“It will likely be more difficult to pinpoint the cause of this tragedy,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at consulting company JTG Inc. in Virginia, who has worked for the Saudi embassy in Washington. “A stampede is often the result of a minor infraction or accident that quickly spirals out of control.”
While there are usually some fatalities at the Hajj, it’s been almost 10 years since a major incident and some of the credit for that should go to the Mecca governor, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, Nazer said.
“Although the Saudi government has spent billions of dollars to ensure that the Hajj is as safe and as secure as possible, the sheer number of people moving -- often on foot -- from one site to another means that accidents are bound to happen periodically,” he said.