On September 24, a deadly stampede occurred at the biggest Muslim gathering in the world, the holy pilgrimage of the Hajj. Multiple narratives persist as a result of the huge number of MENA states affected and it is interesting to analyse the reasons behind these discrepancies.
According to an AP (Associated Press) report, published on October 9 and constantly updated since then, the death toll of the stampede amounts to at least 2,177 people and a still undetermined number of missing. That makes this accident the deadliest one in the history of the holy pilgrimage; the previous deadliest tragedy was the 1990 stamped that killed 1,426 people. Official statements from the 19 affected countries reveal the death toll, including 465 Iranians, 165 Egyptians and 120 Indonesians, the countries most affected by the disaster.
However, the Iranian media reported that there were at least 4,173 victims, while the official death toll according to Saudi authorities is 769 victims, a number that has not been updated since September the 26th.
In order to understand why there are deep dissimilarities in media coverage and, above all, how these incongruities actually talk about the bigger picture of the ongoing geopolitical conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important to understand what the Hajj is and what it represents for Muslims.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is a ritual pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The pilgrimage is mandatory at least once in a lifetime for whomever has the means to do so.
As part of the Hajj many ceremonies are carried out, and it was during one of these ceremonies involving stone-throwing, that the latest deadly stampede occurred.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the two major powers competing for regional dominance. These two nations are fighting wars by proxy across the Middle-East of which Syria, Yemen and Iraq are just the most emblematic examples, and the Hajj tragedy is just the latest battle.
Russian intervention in Syria, the Iran Deal, the war in Yemen, disorders in the south of Saudi Arabia with its Shia minority are just a few of the problems affecting the Saudi royal family. In this atmosphere, the Hajj disaster, in conjunction with the previous tragic crane collapse on the Grand Mosque that killed 111 people, could represent devastating hits for Riyadh with both tragic events being used by Iran to attack Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian authorities blame Saudi Arabia’s mismanagement, asserting it is the only cause of the tragedy. From the Iranian perspective, this is the definitive proof of Saudi Royal family’s inability to properly control the Hajj, and Iran has called for an independent authority to take over its management.
However, it is clear that this is not going to happen: the Saudi legitimacy in Saudi Arabia, and all over the Muslim world, is anchored to the role of protector of the holy places of Islam. If they gave up management of the Hajj, the role as protector could eventually fall too, and this would lead to uncontrolled riots in one of the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East: losing control of people would mean losing control of oil reserves and that it is not an admissible option (at least from an American point of view). The Iranian state is aware of the unlikeliness of the Saudi royal family giving up its managerial role in the Hajj, but nevertheless its rhetoric seems to be quite effective with the Iranian, Yemeni and Iraqi masses.
On the opposite side there are many Arabic countries which have been very hesitant criticising Saudi Arabia, and have showed no other reports about this event than the official figures quoted by Saudi authorities. This attitude is most likely linked to the Kingdom’s patronage of oil supplies and the fact that Riyadh controls the quota of pilgrims each Country can send every year to Mecca. One clear example of that is Pakistan: Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority warned independent national media that criticism towards Saudi Arabia could be considered illegal under constitutional prohibition on affecting relation with “friendly countries”.
Both the Iranian media and Saudi media have fuelled the debate around the Hajj, not only in the context of human tragedy, but of geostrategic rivalry. Their actions distort media reports about one of the most important aspects of Islamic religion in the pursuit of geopolitical goals. It is important to keep this in mind while reading or listening to news of any kind involving the Middle-East; if such states are willing to use a tragic event, especially one occurring at the holiest of Muslim festivities, as a political tool, then one must question any facts or figures that are presented without independent verification.
Gianluca Aquino holds a law degree from the University of Naples Federico II and is currently doing a Master’s Degree in Economy and the Institutions of Islamic Countries (MISLAM) at LUISS University in Rome. He is particularly interested in geopolitics and analysing national public policies, foreign policy towards regional and global actors and geopolitical dynamics. He believes that the Middle East and the southern bank of Mediterranean Sea represent crucial elements in the global theatre and his post-graduate studies focus on Islamic countries with an aim to contribute to national or supranational institution, a think tank or an NGO as a political analyst.
*Cover image ‘Mecca, Saudi Arabia‘ by Mohd Azli Abdul Malek