x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Saudi Arabia ready for ‘all possibilities’ during Haj pilgrimage

Interior minister says 95,000 personnel from the defence ministry, national guard and intelligence agencies have been mobilised for the annual event. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

Palestinian children in Gaza walk around a replica of the Kaaba stone, which is found in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as they learn about the rituals carried out during the annual Haj pilgrimage. Said Khatib /AFP
Palestinian children in Gaza walk around a replica of the Kaaba stone, which is found in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as they learn about the rituals carried out during the annual Haj pilgrimage. Said Khatib /AFP

Saudi Arabia’s interior minister yesterday warned against attempts to exploit the Haj for political purposes and said the kingdom was prepared for “all possibilities”, including terrorist attacks.

Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said 95,000 personnel from the defence ministry, national guard and intelligence agencies had been mobilised while an additional 40,000-strong special force would be deployed to secure the pilgrimage, which begins on Sunday and ends on October 18.

“Maintaining safety and security of pilgrims requires us to take all the possibilities seriously,” said Prince Mohammed, who also chairs the Supreme Haj Committee. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has witnessed in the recent past a fierce terrorist campaign which does not exclude the holy sites.”

He did not mention any particular threats, but between 2003 and 2006, Saudi Arabia was targeted by Al Qaeda.

An additional 40,000-strong force mobilised specially for the Haj and Umrah is also in place this year, he said.

About 2 million pilgrims from more than 100 countries are expected to undertake this year’s Haj.

The pilgrimage is considered a pillar of unity, but this year’s Haj comes at a particularly tense time for the region, raising concerns that some could try to use the event for political gain.

Syria’s conflict has pushed more than 2 million refugees into neighbouring countries, violence in Iraq has escalated, and Egypt has seen a string of attacks from Islamist militants.

“The pilgrimage is not a field for political conflicts and sectarian differences, with taking into consideration of narrow space and congestion of pilgrims, where any kind of unrest could lead to a disaster,” Prince Mohammed said, adding that King Abdullah asked pilgrims to “stay away [from] any work distracting them from performing the Haj rituals”.

In a sign of how the event can cross political divides, Iran’s Fars news agency reported that the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia spoke by phone about Haj preparations.

Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saudi Prince Saud Al Faisal “underlined the need for further cooperation between the two countries’ Haj officials in a bid to pave the way for the splendour of this year’s Haj rituals”.

In addition to security concerns, this year’s Haj has also raised questions over the spread of the Mers coronavirus, a cousin of Sars, that has so far infected 136 people worldwide, 117 of them in Saudi Arabia.

The World Health Organisation last month decided against issuing travel warnings related to the virus, but urged authorities and pilgrims to take extra caution.

This week, the ministry of health announced that it had recruited 22,500 health workers for the pilgrimage, staffing 25 hospitals and 141 medical centres.

Saudi authorities reduced the number of international pilgrims this year by 20 per cent in part to limit the risk that the virus could spread, specifically asking elderly and chronically ill patients, who have been most susceptible, to postpone their journeys.

The kingdom is also working to expand the Grand Mosque to keep up with the growing numbers of pilgrims who visit each year.

“We are committed to decreasing the number of pilgrims in this year comparing with the recent years due to the construction works,” Prince Mohammed said. “These procedures are taken for the safety and security of pilgrims to perform their Haj rituals easily and comfortably.”

edickinson@thenational.ae