Scorching heat ravages hajj as more than 1,000 pilgrims die

More than 1.8 million people participated in this year’s hajj. (Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP) (AP)
More than 1.8 million people participated in this year’s hajj. (Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP) (AP)

Summary

Americans and hundreds of Egyptians were among the dead in Saudi Arabia’s annual event, which suffered its highest death toll since 2015.

As nearly two million Muslim pilgrims converged on Saudi Arabia’s deserts for the annual hajj, the kingdom was braced for everything from terrorist attacks to demonstrations against Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.

Instead, the threat came from the heat.

Temperatures soared above 125 degrees Fahrenheit at one point this week—unusually high for mid-June—and more than 1,000 people died. Among them were a number of Americans, a State Department spokesperson said. The situation was worsened by a large number of unpermitted pilgrims who didn’t have access to cooling facilities or the full range of available healthcare.

The death toll is the highest at the hajj since a stampede in 2015 killed more than 2,000 people. The fatalities are still being counted and are likely to rise, as hundreds of people are either missing or in the hospital with severe heat stroke. Hundreds of Egyptians were among the dead.

Pilgrims began to succumb to the heat last Saturday, the first day of the event, when worshipers make a trek of nearly 10 miles to climb Mount Arafat then stand outside for hours to pray before returning to Mecca.

Ahmed Mohammed, a 31-year-old Egyptian who attended hajj without a permit, said that as he came down from Arafat he tried to help an older man who was too exhausted to continue. The police and medics told him they had other calls to respond to first, so he pushed the man in a wheelchair for an hour to a private clinic, which refused to admit him. Finally, Mohammed’s cousin was able to get close enough with a car for them to load the man in and take him to a public hospital, where he entered intensive care.

“Most people are walking long distances, and the crowds are immense," Mohammed said. “The police and ambulance service were overwhelmed with reports that they were not prepared to handle."

Saudi Arabia limits the number of pilgrims from each country. To circumvent the caps and save on the cost of sanctioned travel packages that usually start at several thousand dollars, many people travel to the country as tourists then slip into the hajj rituals.

Unpermitted pilgrims don’t have standard access to official buses or air-conditioned venues, so they ended up making the trek to Arafat and spending all day in the sun, often without enough water or parasols.

In interviews with The Wall Street Journal and video testimonies posted online, pilgrims said the Saudi police had granted them access to Arafat on Saturday without permits but later didn’t respond to pleas for help when they reported that people had collapsed on the walk. Others said police had distributed food, water and parasols but that ambulances were overwhelmed by the need.

An Egyptian lawyer said he had rented an apartment in Mecca before the security forces locked down the city ahead of hajj so that he could participate without a permit. He walked for seven hours on Saturday morning in a sea of other unpermitted pilgrims to reach Arafat, where he said he saw many people dying.

“They were standing in the sun, and the temperature was above 50 degrees," he said, the Celsius equivalent of more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “They couldn’t withstand the hot weather."

Saudi Arabia hasn’t commented on the death toll and didn’t respond to questions about what happened at this year’s hajj, in which some 1.83 million people participated. It said Monday that more than 2,700 people had been treated for heat stroke. The army had deployed more than 1,600 personnel with medical units specifically for heat stroke and had staffed 30 rapid-response teams. An additional 5,000 health and first-aid volunteers also took part.

Health Minister Fahd Al-Jalajel said Tuesday that health plans had been carried out successfully, with no outbreak of disease or other threats to public health. He said heat-stress injuries had been minimized by discouraging pilgrims from performing rituals during peak temperatures.

Saudi officials have asked pilgrims to stay hydrated and carry umbrellas. They advised pilgrims on Monday against performing the symbolic “stoning of the devil" ritual at midday after temperatures soared, and on Thursday encouraged worshipers to pray at local mosques across Mecca rather than the central mosque to reduce crowding and avoid high temperatures.

The hajj, a five-day event that has been held since the seventh century, is a once-a-lifetime duty for Muslims able to make the journey and is one of the world’s largest annual gatherings. It’s also a source of great political and religious prestige for Saudi Arabia as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites and generates billions of dollars in revenue for the kingdom each year.

Safety and security incidents can carry geopolitical risk, fueling calls from Saudi rivals like Iran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels to place Mecca and Medina under international administration.

Ahead of this year’s hajj, the most obvious concern was that Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza risked sparking unrest among Muslim worshipers, many of whom oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as well as Saudi Arabia’s openness to establishing formal relations with Israel in a U.S.-backed deal.

Saudi Arabia has sought to curb the number of unpermitted pilgrims with threats of arrest and fines, even as the kingdom aims to double the official capacity of the hajj to six million by 2030. But the kingdom’s efforts to build a traditional tourism industry have also made it easier for foreigners to enter the country for other purposes and hide out in Mecca waiting for the rituals to begin.

Saudi public-security director Lt. Gen. Mohammed Al-Bassami said ahead of hajj that unpermitted pilgrims were “partners in this transgression" and repeated warnings that they would be arrested if they sought to participate in the rituals.

Unpermitted pilgrims could be said to bear responsibility for endangering their own lives, said Umer Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham in England. But, he said, “hajj authorities could have taken quick measures and that might have saved some lives."

Among the dead were more than 600 Egyptians, officials from their government said, almost all of whom had participated without permits.

At least 212 Indonesians also died, according to the country’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, which identified widespread heat stroke and pneumonia as the most common causes. About 90 Indian nationals died, though not all of their deaths were heat-related, according to an Indian government official. Both countries have suffered higher tolls in previous years.

Dozens of other pilgrims have also died, including from Jordan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey and Iran.

It wasn’t clear how many Americans had died. “The situation is dynamic, so we do not have a precise number for you at this time," the State Department spokesperson said late Thursday.

Many of those who died were sick or elderly, making them more vulnerable to heavy exertion in the heat. Recent studies have found that consistently rising temperatures in Mecca could jeopardize the running of hajj during summer months as soon as the 2040s.

Menna Farouk, Suha Ma’ayeh, Jon Emont, Rajesh Roy, Saeed Shah, Aresu Eqbali and Elvan Kivilcim contributed to this article.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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