The annual hajj pilgrimage will peak in Saudi Arabia beginning this weekend, between Sept. 9 and Sept. 14. Approximately 1.5 million pilgrims from 180 countries will convene in the city of Mecca to visit centuries-old monuments such as the Kaba to conduct group and individual rituals in what is for most a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Mandatory for those who can afford it, the hajj is something for which many pilgrims have saved and waited years. Envisioned and practiced as the ultimate embodiment of unity of the global Muslim umma (community), the hajj can still at times have a fracturing effect. And when the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia exercises its territorial right to custody over the sacred sites to which pilgrims stream, the accusations of politicization are often rife from the kingdom's chief regional Shiite rival, Iran.
Such is the heated situation this week as Saudi Arabia and Iran's most powerful religious authorities trade rhetorical blows over the hajj, jabbing at each other's spiritual and political legitimacy. Simmering tensions over last year's hajj stampede disaster have coursed between the two countries on the eve of this year's pilgrimage. Upward of 2,300 pilgrims died that day in September under circumstances that Saudi Arabia has investigated but has yet to fully clarify. The tensions merely add to a slew of other points of friction in the degraded relationship. The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Saudi Arabia last weekend of mismanagement and committing "murder" during last year's hajj. This week, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, its highest authority in Quranic law and interpretation, responded by claiming that Iranians are actually non-Muslim "sons of Magus," a reference to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition common throughout Iran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have argued for decades about Riyadh's perceived mismanagement of the hajj. Their dispute heats up in years when the pilgrimage goes awry, such as in 1987, when Saudi security forces killed hundreds of demonstrating Iranian pilgrims. Iran's statements this week have this history in the background, but they specifically revisited last year's global outrage against Saudi Arabia in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Mina stampede, during which 474 Iranian pilgrims died, more than any other nationality. The stampede was, of course, but one of several disasters over the many decades that Saudi Arabia has managed the pilgrimage, a testament to the difficulties of coordinating the logistics of a diverse crowd of millions moving in tight spaces. The logistics will grow only more complex as Saudi Arabia tries to squeeze more people in.
The management of the hajj is one of the cruxes of the House of Saud's legitimacy. It is an interesting thing to accuse Saudi Arabia of politicizing the pilgrimage when the hajj has long been deeply embedded into the politics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its neighbors, in part by Riyadh's own design. The kingdom's regional and international clout with other Muslim countries generally benefits from its work in managing the hajj, and when Egypt, Pakistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council states defended Saudi Arabia this week against the supreme leader's statements, it showed whose side they are on in the enduring Persian Gulf divide. Even Turkey was involved, mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia to try to resolve this year's spat, but no resolution was found. Neither Tehran nor Riyadh are willing to bend, considering the heightened state of their feud.
As for management practices, Saudi Arabia consults with several external firms and countries on various safety procedures related to the hajj (like the flashy new control center and this year's new security bracelets), but it has never and will never be expected to let other countries advise in the core management of the pilgrimage, or make the pilgrimage space international, as other actors have suggested before. The Gulf Cooperation Council states would not even dare encroach on the intricate management role that Saudi Arabia plays. The more Iran cries "mismanagement," the more Riyadh digs into what it considers its divine right and destiny, even if caution is thrown to the wind as Riyadh courts more and more pilgrims.
This year, the pilgrimage is also in the spotlight as a source of non-oil revenue that aligns with Saudi Arabia's ambitious Vision 2030 reform plan. Attempts to increase the number of pilgrims, however, could lead to more disasters in the years to come. As announced earlier this year, Saudi Arabia wants to increase the number of pilgrims by 13 percent annually until 2020, at which point the total would be 2.5 million. The number of pilgrims in umrah (a minor pilgrimage that can be taken at any point in the year) is supposed to increase by 30 percent annually, to 15 million in 2020, up from current numbers of 6 million.
Saudi Arabia is deeply engaged in comprehensive building and construction projects to expand the capacity of its holy sites to absorb this staggering rise in the number of pilgrims, but as last year's crane disaster can attest, even this renovation can be risky. When the House of Saud first came to control the official administration of the hajj after the Ottoman defeat and retreat after World War I, the capacity of the grand mosque was roughly 50,000. The House of Saud has built it up to a capacity of over 1 million, with constant goals to keep increasing.
Custodianship of the two holy mosques is a pillar that holds up the Saudi kingdom — one made more critical because of the shakiness of the kingdom's other pillars: oil revenue and a Wahhabist society. Of the other two pillars, lower oil prices have destabilized one, and the rise of radicalized Islamist groups across the region has rocked the other. Saudi Arabia is thus seeking to derive as much benefit as it can from hosting the hajj, despite the potential political repercussions. And despite the ideal of what the hajj is, because of what it provides to Saudi Arabia — and other Muslim nations — and its inherent politicization, Iran will always find a way to interject and critique.