For Over a Century: Saudi Success in Hajj Management

Hajj pilgrims’ camps at the beginning of the Saudi era (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Hajj pilgrims’ camps at the beginning of the Saudi era (Asharq Al-Awsat)
TT

For Over a Century: Saudi Success in Hajj Management

Hajj pilgrims’ camps at the beginning of the Saudi era (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Hajj pilgrims’ camps at the beginning of the Saudi era (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Saudi Arabia’s connection with Hajj is a long-standing tradition marked by significant achievements. This journey began with the first pilgrimage under the reign of the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz, soon after he entered Makkah in December 1924.
While Hajj is a great honor for Saudi Arabia, it also comes with immense responsibility.
King Abdulaziz Calls on Muslims to Join Hajj
King Abdulaziz has invited Muslims from around the world to join the Hajj pilgrimage. He promised to ensure their comfort, security, and rights.
Due to ongoing unrest in Jeddah at the time, pilgrims were directed to travel to the holy city of Makkah through the ports of Rabigh, Al Lith, and Al Qunfudhah.
In his message, King Abdulaziz said: “We warmly welcome pilgrims from all Muslim nations. We are committed to their comfort and safety, and we will facilitate their journey to Makkah from Rabigh, Al Lith, or Al Qunfudhah. Our forces have secured these areas, and we will take all necessary measures to ensure the pilgrims’ comfort.”
King Abdulaziz Welcomes Charitable Initiatives
King Abdulaziz announced that all previous barriers to charitable and economic projects have been removed. He invited everyone to undertake such efforts, assuring that the gates of Hijaz are open and the local government is ready to provide full support and facilities for these initiatives.
Challenges of Hajj Before Saudi Rule
On February 25, 1925, Sultan Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud issued a call to Muslims, inviting them to perform Hajj. This was before he was declared King of Hijaz. How did he organize the first Hajj season, and what conditions did pilgrims face? Security was a major concern, along with disease, mistreatment by local authorities, and lack of services.
British documents reveal a lack of clear policies. One document notes the anger of Bengali Muslims due to the poor treatment of their pilgrims in the 1924 Hajj season. Another document states that Indian Muslims found the arrangements in Makkah very poor.
Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Rifaat Pasha, who performed Hajj in 1901 and 1908, documented his experiences.
In 1901, he noted, “The ruler of Makkah imposed a tax for the railway, charging each pilgrim one riyal. Pilgrims who refused to pay were detained in Makkah for seven days after Hajj.”
“Some Moroccan pilgrims complained to the governor about being detained. The governor sent a representative, but the pilgrims were beaten by the ruler’s guards and returned empty-handed. A rightful complaint was met with harsh humiliation,” added Pasha.
Pasha also warned that if this injustice continues, people will avoid Hajj, which would harm the Arab economy and Islam.
“Hajj connects Muslims worldwide. Without it, Muslims would be easy prey for colonizers,” he cautioned.
He described the chaos as pilgrims left Makkah, “Pilgrims were stopped to pay another tax of one riyal per camel. The congestion was severe, with harsh enforcement by guards. People fell, bones broke, and luggage was lost or damaged.”
“The sounds of women wailing, children crying, and men arguing filled the air. There was no police to maintain order. This chaos was due to poor tax collection. The government could have appointed more collectors and scheduled departures by caravan to ensure a calm and safe journey for the pilgrims,” concluded Pasha.
King Abdulaziz Acts to Secure Pilgrims
King Abdulaziz faced various challenges and waited several years before annexing Hijaz. Despite having a clear path forward, he avoided actions that might provoke foreign intervention.
He pursued a patient approach, issuing statements and communications to clarify his position regarding the Hijaz government’s treatment of pilgrims, which justified his eventual annexation decision.
However, he delayed due to recognizing the significant difficulties in Hijaz needing comprehensive solutions.
While annexing Hijaz was pivotal for his unification efforts, King Abdulaziz’s primary aim was to protect the holy sites, ensure safe access, establish peace, and address injustices faced by pilgrims.
His vision prioritized swiftly providing essential services and enforcing justice based on Islamic principles. Despite resource constraints, wartime conditions, the siege of Jeddah, and international criticism, King Abdulaziz felt deeply responsible for fulfilling this mission.
Inaugurating the First Hajj Season under Saudi Rule
King Abdulaziz successfully oversaw the inaugural Hajj season during his reign, a milestone achieved through divine guidance, clear vision, and meticulous planning aimed at ensuring security, justice, and enhanced services.
This responsibility was immense, but King Abdulaziz fully grasped its importance, closely monitored its execution, and personally supervised the details. The successful management of the Hajj pilgrimage in the early years of the Saudi state underscored his effective leadership.
Security
After declaring the restoration of security in the Hijaz shortly after entering Makkah, King Abdulaziz moved quickly to enforce order. He warned of severe punishments for anyone endangering security, especially during the Hajj pilgrimage.
He deployed patrols to hunt down criminals targeting pilgrims, ensuring their swift justice. Tribal leaders were cautioned against disrupting pilgrim caravans and held responsible for crimes in their territories. This firm stance deterred further criminal activity.
Health and Municipal Services
Upon arriving in Makkah, King Abdulaziz swiftly appointed his personal physician, Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Hamouda, to oversee public health.
He took immediate steps to organize health services and educate the public through articles in the early editions of “Um Al-Qura” newspaper. Addressing prevalent diseases and epidemics became a top priority after ensuring security.
Key initiatives included verifying causes of death and issuing weekly statistical reports.
Before the Hajj season, proactive health measures were implemented to prevent diseases, proposing suitable medical teams with a strong focus on prevention.
Several hospitals and health centers were prepared to operate during Hajj. Food and beverage sales, bakery cleanliness, and health guidelines for barbers were monitored closely, with strict penalties for violations.
The cleansing of holy sites and preparation of sacrificial areas were also part of the comprehensive preparations.
Post-Hajj, a health report confirmed the absence of epidemic diseases and a decrease in mortality rates compared to previous years, accompanied by several recommendations.
Water and Food
King Abdulaziz prioritized the maintenance of Ayn Zubaydah’s water channels, ensuring it remained clear to prevent pilgrim thirst, a lesson learned from past Hajj seasons.
Early in Dhu al-Qi’dah, the operation of a water pump was announced to transport water to Mina, with efforts to fill reservoirs ensuring water availability for pilgrims. The King entrusted his advisor, Hafiz Wahba, to oversee these operations, inspecting pumping machinery and reservoirs in Mina and Arafat and reporting back.
Before the Hajj season, efforts to clean and sterilize water channels, reservoirs, and public basins in Mina were completed.
King Abdulaziz also took proactive measures to secure food supplies from various regions, opening markets and ensuring staples like dates, meat, ghee, honey, wheat, barley, corn, and sesame were available from Najd, Asir, Jazan, and Taif.
He appointed Abdullah Al-Fadl to procure goods early from Aden and India, resulting in several ships arriving before Hajj carrying flour, sugar, barley, and kerosene. Caravans of camels also delivered provisions.
Announcements regarding food availability, price monitoring, and weekly price lists were made, with actions taken against monopolistic traders. Some companies advertised affordable food options, ensuring accessibility for all pilgrims.



How Iran's Khamenei Elevated Pezeshkian to the Presidency

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
TT

How Iran's Khamenei Elevated Pezeshkian to the Presidency

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

When intelligence officials briefed Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei in May ahead of a snap presidential election, their report was grim: angered by economic hardship and crackdowns on social freedoms, most Iranians planned to boycott the vote and turnout would only be about 13%.
That's when Khamenei decided to plan a carefully orchestrated election, setting the stage for a little-known but trusted moderate, Massoud Pezeshkian, to rise to the presidency in a race that would initially be dominated by hardliners, five people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Khamenei gathered a handful of his most trusted advisers to discuss his plan in at least three meetings in late May at his residence in a fortified compound in Tehran, according to the five people, who are two hardline sources, a top security official and two insiders close to Khamenei's inner circle.
The supreme leader was concerned low turnout would damage the clerical establishment's credibility and he ordered those present to find a way to steer the election, said one of the people, who was briefed about the meetings.
The election was called after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May. His death upset the plans of many fellow hardliners who wanted him to succeed the 85-year-old Khamenei and triggered a race among hardliners to influence the selection of the next supreme leader.
The meetings at Khamenei's residence included a small group of senior officials and security aides, his close ally and adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, as well as two senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards.
Khamenei's aim was to preserve Iran amid domestic dissent and heightened tensions with the West and Israel over Gaza, exacerbated by the involvement of Tehran's allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, according to the five people, who were briefed in detail about what Khamenei said during the meetings regarding his plan and its goals.
One of the insiders briefed about the meeting said Khamenei believed Iran needed a president who could appeal to different layers of society, but would not challenge the ruling Shiite theocracy.
Several names were floated at the second meeting. Khamenei suggested Pezeshkian as a person who could foster unity among those in power, bridge the gap between the clerical establishment and the people, and ensure a smooth selection process for the next supreme leader, two sources said.
"It was a flawless plan by the supreme leader ... which guaranteed the survival of the Islamic Republic," said Tehran-based pro-reform analyst Saeed Laylaz.
"Pezeshkian will avoid any crisis at home, whether with the nation or the establishment," Laylaz said. "That will allow top leaders to decide about the succession and plan it in a calm atmosphere."
Khamenei's office, the public relations office for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Pezeshkian's office could not be reached for comment. Velayati's office declined to comment.
ELECTION ENGINEERING?
The new president is not expected to usher in any major shift on Iran's nuclear or foreign policy, or its support for militias in the region, but he will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Khamenei, who calls the shots on top state matters.
Pezeshkian's mild profile, the sources said, would appease disgruntled Iranians, ensure domestic stability amid mounting foreign pressure, as well as providing Khamenei with a trusted ally in the eventual succession process.
A regional source close to Iranian circles of power said Pezeshkian's election had been "engineered" to defuse tensions after a wave of popular protests sparked by the death in custody of a young woman in 2022 and stricter curbs on social freedoms imposed by Raisi.
The initial phase of Khamenei's plan was set in motion when then-lawmaker Pezeshkian - encouraged by pragmatic former officials with links to the supreme leader's office - registered to stand in the June 28 election, two sources said.
They said Pezeshkian was unaware of the behind-the-scenes decisions. One source close to him said he didn't even expect to be approved by the Guardian Council, an unelected vetting body of six clerics and six jurists aligned to Khamenei which has banned many moderate and prominent conservative candidates in the past.
Khamenei's plan was designed to appear fair and democratic, so two prominent hardline candidates, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, were approved by the vetting council, the five people familiar with the matter said.
That meant hardliner votes would likely be split between them, making it harder for both to make it to a run-off.
Jalili belongs to the ultra-hardline camp of "Paydari", which advocates tougher social restrictions, self-reliance, a hawkish foreign policy - and is believed to have already chosen its candidate to succeed Khamenei, said former Iranian lawmaker Noureddin Pirmoazen, a reformer now based in the United States.
A win for Jalili, who opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, would have sent a negative signal to the West as it piles pressure on Tehran over its fast-advancing uranium enrichment program, three analysts and two diplomats told Reuters.
"With the increased likelihood of Donald Trump's return to the White House ... the Islamic Republic needed a moderate figure to keep dialogue with the West open and reduce tensions," said one Western diplomat in the region.
A Guardian Council spokesman said: "It was a transparent and impartial election."
Jalili and Qalibaf could not be reached for comment.
A US State Department spokesperson said: "We can't speculate on specific theories of what may have transpired behind the scenes of Iran's recent presidential election. What we can say with certainty is that elections in Iran are neither free nor fair."
A White House National Security Council spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about the main points of this story but said Washington had no expectation the elections would lead to fundamental change in Iran's direction or more respect for the human rights of its citizens.
THE DESIRED OUTCOME
Pezeshkian, who is an Azeri ethnic minority, won the first round with a core of voters that analysts said was mostly urban middle class or young - groups widely disillusioned by years of security crackdowns.
But voter turnout was just 40%, the lowest for any election in the Islamic Republic, and the election went to a run-off between Pezeshkian and the fervently anti-Western Jalili.
Qalibaf, a security hawk, who has echoed the views of Khamenei on every major issue, such as backing the power of Islamic clerics, finished third.
Fearing Jalili's antagonistic domestic and foreign policy, many Iranians who voted for Qalibaf, or abstained, went for Pezeshkian in the second round on July 5, bumping up the turnover to almost 50% of Iran's 61 million voters.
Ultimately, Khamenei's plan achieved the desired outcome.
Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old heart surgeon, backed by reformists, moderate conservatives and ethnic minorities, won with 54% of the votes.
"I thank the supreme leader. If it weren't for him, I don't think my name would have easily come out of ballot boxes," Pezeshkian said on state TV.
Two sources close to Khamenei said Pezeshkian was referring to an order from the supreme leader to electoral officials to ensure votes were counted properly. The electoral authorities said there were no complaints about vote rigging.
Pezeshkian, loyal to Iran's theocratic rule, has pledged to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled talks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, and improve prospects for social liberalization.
He has spoken up for the rights of women and ethnic minorities and criticized the establishment's handling of the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman who died in 2022 while in custody for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code.
"They arrest a girl because a few strands of her hair are showing ... and return her dead body to her family," Pezeshkian said in 2022. "This behavior is unacceptable."
However, many analysts are skeptical about whether Pezeshkian can fulfil all his campaign promises as he has publicly stated that he has no intention of confronting Iran's powerful clerics and security hawks.