Saudis Breathe Sigh of Relief at Hassle-Free 1995 Pilgrimage

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Saudis Breathe Sigh of Relief at Hassle-Free 1995 Pilgrimage

Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Saudis Breathe Sigh of Relief At Hassle-Free 1995 Pilgrimage

By Richard H. Curtiss

Five years ago, as the buildup in Saudi Arabia of half a million troops from 37 nations to expel Saddam Hussain's forces from Kuwait was underway, military logisticians marveled at the desert kingdom's ability to produce whatever the incoming troops needed. American soldiers each received a hamburger as they disembarked from their giant C-130 Starlifter military transports at airports in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

Soldiers from Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East also received appropriate food and beverages. When troops arrived at their duty stations, so did hundreds of thousands of bottles of drinking water in the transparent bluish plastic containers that became the common denominator in photos of Gulf war soldiers, from privates to generals, in the field.

When troops arrived by air ahead of their heavy equipment and vehicles coming by sea, fleets of rented cars, from limousines to container trucks, were made available to them by the Saudi government. And when a vast military supply operation was set up to transport men, munitions and equipment by truck from the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbu across 1,000 miles of desert to their positions along the borders of Kuwait on the Persian Gulf, the Saudi service stations along the way always had adequate petroleum to keep the convoys moving on schedule.

Strangely, although all of these supplies were ordered and coordinated by the Saudi commanding general, Prince Khaled Bin Sultan Al Saud, to support troops under his own command and those under the parallel command of U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, most of the goods were supplied by the extensive Saudi private sector. The ability of Saudi entrepreneurs to meet such vast and sudden logistical needs astonished and delighted the commanders of U.S. and European forces, but came as no surprise to the troops of the Muslim countries represented in the Desert Shield-Desert Storm buildup.

In fact, the requirements of an influx of 500,000 foreigners pale before those Saudi Arabia faces annually from some two million Muslims who arrive for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca within a strictly circumscribed five-day period. Many of these pilgrims also go on to visit Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad lived during much of his ministry, and where he is buried.

Veterans of Desert Storm may be surprised to know that this annual pilgrimage began normally in 1994, only weeks after most of them had left Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, and proceeded as usual, serviced by the same hundreds of Saudi contractors, entrepreneurs and manufacturers who had played such a vital role in the military operations of January and February.

In fact, the numbers of pilgrims coming to Saudi Arabia for the hajj (pilgrimage) over the Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) have increased geometrically with the improvements in international transportation that began with the end of World War II. One of the five pillars of Islam calls for Muslims who can afford it to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetimes. Many more can afford it now. Whereas at one time most pilgrims arrived by ship or overland by caravan, necessitating an absence of months from homes as distant as West Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines, now pilgrims arrive in hundreds of charter flights using Saudi airport facilities specially constructed to handle the influx. The pilgrims may be back in homes as distant as North and South America within a week or two of leaving.

Saudi Arabia has devoted a very large share of its petroleum revenues to preparing facilities to handle this annual influx from around the globe, on which more than one billion Muslims--a fifth of humanity--reside. This involved constructing the largest airport in the world at Jeddah and expanding that city's port, modernizing and increasing the size of airports elsewhere in the country, and also providing a network of superhighways connecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina with the expanded ports and airports. Large-scale potable water facilities, sewage disposal plants, comfortable hotels, and a network of clinics and modern hospitals capable of handling the annual influx also have been completed. Mecca alone has six hospitals with 12,844 beds, 29 clinics, and 30 cooling and heatstroke units.

The Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina have been expanded repeatedly under the current Al Saud dynasty. Each now can accommodate some 700,000 worshippers at one time. Expenditures on the Grand Mosque, encompassing worshipping space on three levels, have totaled more than $830 million in recent years, and an additional $330 million was spent on expanding and renovating the Prophet's Mosque. Yet, despite the best planning, there have been problems. A few years ago hundreds of agitators who arrived as part of a large delegation of pilgrims from Iran suddenly set off a planned political riot in which some 400 persons, a large percentage of them Saudi policemen, were killed. In 1994 a pedestrian overpass used by pilgrims performing part of their ritual duties suddenly gave way under waves of people using it from both directions, causing numerous deaths and injuries. This year, however, Saudi officials breathed a sigh of relief as the last of the chartered ships and aircraft, which completed some 3,000 hajj flights, returned the 1995 pilgrims to their homelands. Despite the huge size of the pilgrim influx, there were only 134 deaths registered among them, the lowest figure in 20 years.

In all, 1,530,000 pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia from abroad for the hajj. They were joined by 490,861 pilgrims living or working in Saudi Arabia, making the total who performed the prescribed rituals in Mecca between May 8 and 12 more than 2 million. Thus, despite the onset of summer heat, the number of recorded deaths, most of them among the aged and sick, was about what would have occurred had the members of any group of such advanced age and varying degrees of infirmity stayed home. And, despite the colossal numbers, the 1995 pilgrimage also was completed without serious incidents or the outbreak of any contagious diseases.

Among improvements completed before this year's hajj was construction of a new 60,000 square meter hajj terminal at the Jeddah port that can handle 2,500 pilgrims at a time. To avoid repetition of the accident of 1994, the area of the Jamarat Bridge was doubled, turning it into a two-way overpass to prevent the overcrowding that previously accompanied the part of the hajj ritual that requires the pilgrims to throw pebbles at three concrete columns symbolizing Satan.

Health care facilities also were expanded. Present for this year's hajj were 13,000 medical personnel manning not only the clinics and hospitals, but also evacuation helicopters and hundreds of ambulances. Also present were 25,000 workers collecting and burning garbage and maintaining sanitation facilities.

Some 450 clergymen and students from Saudi universities were present to guide the pilgrims through their religious duties. More than 750,000 religious publications were distributed to them, and the Saudi Ministry of Education deployed 1,000 boy scouts to assist and direct pilgrims.

The Saudi government provides transmission of the hajj rites at no charge to radio stations throughout the world. Stations in Gaza, Jericho and South Africa received the transmissions for the first time in 1995, marking the political changes that have occurred in the world since the previous year.

Because the Islamic year, based upon a lunar calendar, is approximately 10 days shorter than the solar year, Islamic holidays literally move around the calendar. This year's hajj occurred just as mild winter weather gave way to summer heat in Saudi Arabia. For the next decade and a half, the pilgrimage will be made in cooler weather, hopefully reducing even further the toll of deaths and illness recorded in the highly successful 1995 hajj season.

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.

Photo (700,000 worshippers in Mecca)

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