By Iran Review
By Hossein Kebriaeezadeh*
Recent incidents during this year’s Hajj rituals both at Masjid al-Haram and Mina have made Riyadh target of a great wave of criticism, which ranges from positions taken by such radical groups as al-Qaeda to remarks made by officials of such a rival country as Iran, who denounced irresponsibility of the Saudi government in the face of this accident.
However, it is not the first time that such incidents take place in the world’s biggest religious gathering. Earlier in 1990, 1994, 1997, and 2006 similar incidents had taken place, including destruction of a bridge or fire in the pilgrims’ tents. Even in 1987, clashes between Hajj pilgrims and the Saudi police left about 600 Iranian pilgrims dead, or in 1979, the floor of Masjid al-Haram turned into a battleground between the Saudi police and members of the extremist group, which was led by Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani.
The frequency of such incidents had already convinced the Saudi officials to beef up security and safety measures for the Hajj ceremony, especially taking into account that a great number of Hajj pilgrims are senile and lack physical strength. However, the political and security approach that had grown within the Saudi government following the unrest in 1979 and 1987, has made Riyadh to focus more on increasing the number of security and police forces in recent years and pay less attention to the quality of medical services. As a result, during this year’s Hajj rituals, there were only 25,000 medical personnel as compared with 100,000 police forces. Therefore, although a week has passed since the Mina incident, the exact number of the victims and their nationalities are still unknown.
The shock given to the public opinion in the Muslim world has elicited different reactions from Islamic countries toward this incident. In the meantime, the harshest positions taken on this incident came from Tehran as a result of which the Saudi charge d’affaires has been summoned four times by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. This reaction was, of course, predictable in view of the past history of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Iranian pilgrims including improper treatment of a number of Iranian pilgrims by security guards at Jeddah airport during the current year and the high number of Iranians killed both in Mina incident and after the collapse of a tower crane at the Grand Mosque.
The deepening of adverse attitudes and ideas at the level of the two governments, which has recently spread to their societies and the two Iranian and Saudi nations, is a bad news, which has unfortunately given birth to certain emotions in the political spheres of the two countries without having any benefit for either of the two states.
On the other hand, such unfriendly measures as rejecting a request by Iran’s representative office in New York to meet with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister for the follow-up of the situation of Iranian pilgrims in Mina, and a few days of delay in issuing visas for an Iranian delegation tasked with following up on the situation of Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia have further intensified unfriendly rhetoric in the two countries’ media. As a result, the crisis in the two countries’ relations has been extended to the two nations as well, and this issue will cause the process of dispelling misunderstandings between these two regional actors more difficult and time-consuming in future. The reality, however, is that ideological conflicts aside, the crisis in the two countries’ relations is affected by regional policies of Riyadh and Tehran, as a result of which when such incidents take place, the ensuing crisis reaches a very tangible level.
It is not uncommon in the world of politics for two hostile countries to have friendly cooperation in nonpolitical fields, especially when it comes to humanitarian issues, and this can help them get closer. An example in point is the relief aid sent by the United States for Iranian victims of earthquake in the southeastern city of Bam. As a result, two decades after that incident, the positive attitude of the Iranian society toward the American nation helped the nuclear talks to reach a positive conclusion. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is expected to take steps for creating new opportunities in the two countries’ relations by accepting responsibility for the Mina incident and act with goodwill for correct management of the crisis in the two countries’ relations instead of choosing for a behavior, which does not conform to international norms.
Apart from relations between Tehran and Riyadh and regardless of the improper political stance of the Saudi officials in the face of mourning nations, the Mina incident reminded Saudi officials of technical shortcomings and flows which starts at the level of small caravans in Islamic countries and continue all the way up to the highest decision-making levels and approaches.
In the meantime, apart from all negative consequences of the Mina incident for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy, this country can still take advantage of the capacity of world religions to hold Hajj rituals away from state biases. Riyadh can also take a large-scale nongovernmental approach to this issue and come up with a management model acceptable to the entire Islamic world in order to continue hosting this global congregation. Saudi Arabia can, in the meantime, sympathize with victims of the incident and with an eye to proximity of religions, provide grounds for taking advantage of the experiences of other religions for holding big religious rituals in sacred cities.
* Hossein Kebriaeezadeh, Expert on Middle East Issues