The Saudi elite were quick to respond to last week’s disaster at the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Before the long rows of white-shrouded dead pilgrims were counted, they at least knew who not blame for the tragedy.
Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, quickly reassured crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
The Mufti insisted, “You are not responsible for what happened…fate and destiny are inevitable.”
This must have come as some relief to the crown prince, since he doubles as Saudi Arabia’s interior minister and chairs the Hajj committee.
He was already under considerable pressure after a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, killing 109 people days before the pilgrimage began.
But invoking providence was never going to pacify Iran’s rulers, who counted 131 citizens among the dead.
Leading the main weekly prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani said, “Saudi Arabia is incapable of organising the pilgrimage.
“The running of the Hajj must be handed over to Islamic states.”
Of course it was the contest between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for regional dominance that lay behind the war of words.
But disdain for the increasing commercialisation of Mecca and the Hajj pilgrimage are widely shared.
According to the Mecca chamber of commerce, Saudi Arabia earned about £5.6 billion from last year’s Hajj—a rise of 3 percent on 2013.
A pilgrim who travels from another country spends an average of £3,050 during the five days. And for the wealthiest of the faithful, rents for local five star hotels this year soared by £12,300.
Many are angered by the Saudi government’s constant cash-grabbing. This includes razing religious sites to make way for still more hotels and shopping malls.
The house of the Prophet Mohammed’s companion Abu Bakr has given way to a Hilton hotel.
Resentment of the Saudi elite leads many to alternative explanations for this year’s carnage.
Several Arabic newspapers insist the crush happened because police suddenly blocked roads that allow thousands of pilgrims to walk to the “stoning the devil” ritual.
It is said they were allowing a royal motorcade to speed through the throngs.
Ahmed Abu Bakr, a Libyan who escaped the crush with his mother, said, “There was crowding. The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one.”
It has also been pointed out that, following the initial loss of life, Saudi emergency services had too few language and practical skills to deal with the array of Muslims.
In the panic following the first crush, they could not communicate with the majority of pilgrims and that in itself resulted many more deaths.
Sensing that “fate” might not be a good enough explanation for loss of life, some of the Saudi elite are trying another ploy.
Prince Khalid al-Faisal now blames the “stampede” on “some pilgrims with African nationalities”.
The racist outburst is unlikely to quell the growing anger.
Instead it will rightly feed those who hope that the Arab Spring can be revived to deal a death blow to at least one more corrupt regime.