Wednesday May 22, 2019

Security tactics being updated by Saudi after 2015 attacks at the world’s largest annual Muslim gathering ‘Haj’

Relations between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in Syria and other conflicts, plummeted after the 2015 crush

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Muslim pilgrims and rescuers gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia, during the annual hajj pilgrimage, Sept. 24, 2015 (VOA)

The world’s largest annual Muslim gathering, bringing some two million to Islam’s most sacred sites in Mecca, will also be a focus of concern about militant violence after a suicide bomber killed four soldiers in early July in the nearby city of Medina, Islam’s second holiest.

Custodian of Islam’s most revered places, Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on organizing haj, one of the five pillars of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once.

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Its prestige was damaged by the 2015 disaster, in which Riyadh said 769 pilgrims were killed – the highest haj death toll since a crush in 1990. Counts of fatalities by countries who repatriated bodies showed that over 2,000 people may have died in the crush, more than 400 of them Iranians.

People stand near the site of an explosion in Medina, Saudi Arabia, July 4, 2016 (VOA)
People stand near the site of an explosion in Medina, Saudi Arabia, July 4, 2016 (VOA)

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, blamed the disaster on organizers’ incompetence. An official Saudi inquiry has yet to be published, but authorities suggested at the time some pilgrims ignored crowd control rules.

This year, efforts are being made to strengthen crowd management.

Thousands of civil servants, security personnel and medics have been conducting drills in preparation for the pilgrimage, which officially starts this week.

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The kingdom says it is deploying extra staff and increasing coordination with haj missions from pilgrims’ home countries to ensure worshippers comply with agreed schedules to perform various rituals. Hundreds of new surveillance cameras had been installed at the Grand Mosque.

“The scheduling program is the most important part of the operational program,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told Reuters.

“This is the area we have to concentrate on, to make sure pilgrims comply with it once they get there.”

Muslim pilgrims gather around the bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 (VOA)
Muslim pilgrims gather around the bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 (VOA)

Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat said last month the Mecca Development Authority had set up electronic paths and gates to manage crowds heading to Jamarat, the symbolic stoning of the devil where many previous disasters have occurred.

The kingdom also is kitting pilgrims out with electronic wristbands to enable authorities to track the flow of people and get early warnings of crowd build-ups.

No politics

Relations between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in Syria and other conflicts, plummeted after the 2015 crush.

Riyadh then broke diplomatic ties when its Tehran embassy was stormed in January over the Saudi execution of a Shi’ite cleric.

Wary that some pilgrims may seek to use haj for ideological purposes, Saudi Arabia said it would not tolerate any attempt to politicize haj – remarks widely seen as referring to Iran.

Iran said in May its pilgrims would not attend, blaming Riyadh for “sabotage” and failing to guarantee their safety.

Saudi Arabia blamed Iran, saying it had demanded the right to hold demonstrations that would have created chaos.

But Saudi Arabia is worried that Iranian pilgrims coming from abroad or pro-Iranian pilgrims from other countries could still exploit the gathering to spread anti-Saudi messages. (VOA)

  • Arya Sharan

    It is sad to see religious places being targeted by terrorist groups who advocate for their respective religions.

  • Manthra koliyer

    The stampede resulted in the death of many people

  • Manthra koliyer

    The stampede has led to an increase in the security force!

Next Story

Iranian Economy Gets A Harder Hit by U.S., Trade Figures Shrink With Europe’s Biggest Economy

In other setbacks to Iran, its trade with Germany, Europe’s largest economy, slumped in the first two months of this year, according to the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

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oil tank
An employee walks past oil tanks at a Sinopec refinery in Wuhan, Hubei province April 25, 2012. China’s top state-owned refiners have decided not to order any oil for loading at Iranian ports this month, according to Reuters. Pixabay

U.S. sanctions are biting harder into the Iranian economy, with new signs that Iran’s key oil exports are faltering, while its trade figures with Europe’s biggest economy and with the United States are shrinking.

U.S. news service Bloomberg said it has compiled tanker tracking data showing that no oil tankers had been seen leaving Iran’s oil terminals for foreign ports in the first nine days of May. Crude oil is Iran’s main revenue source.

Washington tightened its unilateral sanctions on Iranian oil exports May 2, ending waivers that it granted to several countries to keep importing crude from Iran and requiring them to reduce imports to zero. The U.S. sanctions are aimed at pressuring Iran to change its perceived malign behaviors.

Bloomberg said the tracking data also revealed that four Iranian tankers were anchored off the coast of China as of May 9, with a fifth tanker on its way to the Chinese coast. It said most of the rest of Iran’s tanker fleet either was returning to the Persian Gulf after discharging cargoes or had been observed in or near the region in the previous two days. It said 10 Iranian tankers had not sent tracking signals for at least 16 days, keeping their transponders turned off in an apparent effort to hide their movements.

In a report published Friday, Reuters said the four Iranian tankers off the Chinese coast and the fifth on its way to China had loaded Iranian crude in April, before China’s U.S. waiver to import the oil expired. It said two of the tankers have discharged their oil to Chinese clients, while two others were waiting to do so at the Chinese ports of Ningbo and Zhoushan.

But in a further blow to Iran’s oil industry, Reuters quoted “three people with knowledge of the matter” as saying China’s top state-owned refiners China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) have decided not to order any oil for loading at Iranian ports this month. Reuters cited the sources as saying the Chinese refiners were worried that making such orders would expose them to U.S. sanctions that could block their access to the U.S. financial system.

Iran has vowed to keep exporting oil in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

Syria
There was no immediate reaction by the Trump administration to the undeclared Iranian oil delivery to Syria. Pixabay

In recent days, Western media said it appears that Tehran did find one oil customer this month, with an Iranian tanker delivering crude to Syria for the first time this year. Iran had stopped oil shipments to Syria, a key regional ally, late last year after suspending a credit line to Damascus because of impending U.S. sanctions against Tehran. The halt in Iranian oil deliveries to Syria, which also is under U.S. sanctions, led to fuel shortages during the Syrian winter.

Reuters cited a source familiar with Iranian oil shipments as saying the Iranian tanker arrived in Syria last week. U.S. network CNBC quoted firms that track maritime shipments as saying Iran made the delivery in the first week of May.

In a tweet posted Friday, TankerTrackers.com co-founder Samir Madani said the Iranian oil arrived May 5 aboard a Suezmax tanker previously known as True Ocean. Suezmax is a naval term for the largest ship capable of transiting the Suez Canal.

There was no immediate reaction by the Trump administration to the undeclared Iranian oil delivery to Syria.

In other setbacks to Iran, its trade with Germany, Europe’s largest economy, slumped in the first two months of this year, according to the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

In Friday reports, newspapers belonging to Germany’s Funke Media Group cited the association as saying German exports to Iran fell 52.6% year-on-year to $261 million in January and February, while German imports from Iran dropped 42.2% to $46 million in the same period.

The Funke newspapers quoted the head of the German-Iranian chamber of commerce, Dagmar von Bohnstein, as saying: “The market in Iran is extremely difficult because of the U.S. sanctions and the country’s economic conditions.” Iran has seen more than a year of small-scale nationwide protests by workers angry at what they see as corruption and mismanagement by its ruling Islamist clerics.

The U.S. Census Bureau also posted trade data Thursday, showing U.S. exports to Iran fell 54.7% in the first quarter of 2019 versus the same period last year, to $14.6 million. It said U.S. first-quarter imports from Iran dropped to just half-a-million dollars, compared to $13.3 million in the year-earlier period.

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian at the State Department in Washington, May 9, 2019.
U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian at the State Department in Washington, May 9, 2019. VOA

In a Thursday interview with VOA Persian at the State Department, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said Iran’s economic troubles will get worse.

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“That is the price this regime is going to pay for behaving like an outlaw regime,” Hook said. “We are denying Iran the ability to fund its proxies. So we are very happy with this steady state of pressure that we hope to keep in place for as long as is necessary.” (VOA)