RE­LI­GION Saudis stiffen se­cu­rity af­ter crush deaths

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As he­li­copters hov­ered in the sky above a seem­ingly end­less num­ber of sol­diers march­ing in uni­son, it looked like Saudi Ara­bia was brac­ing it­self for war.

It was in fact a show of readi­ness to host its most im­por­tant event of the year, the Hajj. The kingdom of­ten talks up its mil­i­tary prow­ess, but even by its own stan­dards, the pa­rade in Mecca was huge. Nearly two mil­lion pil­grims from across the globe come here ev­ery year for the Hajj.

The sea­son lasts for nearly six days, but last year it was dis­as­trous. Hun­dreds, pos­si­bly thou­sands, of peo­ple - many of them Ira­nian were killed in a crush on the third day. It was the dead­li­est ac­ci­dent at the Hajj in more than two decades.

Iran is not sending any pil­grims this year, af­ter Tehran and Riyadh failed to reach agree­ment over Hajj ar­range­ments amid a diplo­matic row. Iran be­lieves the Saudis are not do­ing enough to guar­an­tee the safety of the pil­grims, while the Saudis say Iran wants spe­cial rights.

“Ira­ni­ans want to politi­cise the Hajj,” said Saudi in­te­rior min­istry spokesman Man­sour Turki. “They want to or­gan­ise protests. We won’t al­low them to spoil the re­li­gious rit­ual. This is why they are crit­i­cis­ing us.” The route to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, site of Is­lam’s holi­est place, the Kaaba, is punc­tu­ated by se­cu­rity check­points.

As we passed through one af­ter an­other, of­fi­cers thor­oughly checked our IDs and film­ing kit. A cou­ple of miles away from the Grand Mosque, road­blocks have been set up and ve­hi­cles are banned, with only pedes­tri­ans al­lowed.

The po­lice pres­ence is heavy, with teams of of­fi­cers or­gan­is­ing the swelling crowds and try­ing to pre­vent chaos.

“I think se­cu­rity is fan­tas­tic,” a mid­dle-aged male pil­grim says, “but given the huge num­bers of peo­ple here, ac­ci­dents can al­ways hap­pen. Crowds can get out of con­trol. But I am still very happy be­ing here.” But other pil­grims are wor­ried. “I am afraid of a pos­si­ble stam­pede,” said a woman from Al­ge­ria. “I hope the Hajj goes smoothly. I don’t want to see a rep­e­ti­tion of what hap­pened last year.”

In the wake of the crush, of­fi­cials strug­gled to iden­tify some of the vic­tims. To avoid a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, Saudi Ara­bia has de­vel­oped elec­tronic bracelets, which have been is­sued to all pil­grims. Each bracelet has a bar­code and can be con­nected to a smart­phone via an app called

“If you open the app, fo­cus it on the bar­code writ­ten on the bracelet, you will in­stantly get all the personal de­tails of each pil­grim, in­clud­ing his/her photo, name, age, na­tion­al­ity etcetera,” Eissa Rawas, of the Saudi Min­istry of Hajj, ex­plained. This new tech­nol­ogy helps a lot when a pil­grim is hurt or lost,” he said.

The Saudis are us­ing all their lo­gis­ti­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties to try to en­sure this year’s Hajj passes with­out in­ci­dent. BBC

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