Muslim deaths at hajj pilgrimage spark criticism of Saudi government

Extreme temperatures this year cause fivefold increase in fatalities due to lack of ‘shade or comfort’

During this year’s hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, temperatures exceeded 50 degrees. About 1.8 million people took part in four days of religious ceremonies. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Saudi Arabia’s government faces strong criticism over management of the annual hajj pilgrimage after admitting that 1,300 Muslims died in temperatures that soared to 51.8 degrees. This was five times the death toll reported last year, the Saudi government said,while claiming the hajj had been a “success”.

Saudi health minister Fahd bin Abdulrrahman al-Jalajel said 83 per cent of those who died did not have official hajj permits, which secure access to shelter and transport. He said health facilities treated nearly half a million pilgrims for heat exhaustion, including 140,000 without permits. A total 95 pilgrims were in hospital and some were flown to Riyadh for treatment, he said.

Pilgrims without permits were compelled to walk “long distances in the sun without shade or comfort”, the Saudi press agency reported.

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Some 660 of those who died were Egyptian, including 31 registered pilgrims who had chronic illness, Cairo said. At least 200 Indonesians, 98 Indians, 99 Jordanians and 49 Tunisians died, their governments said. Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, Senegal, Sudan, and the US also confirmed deaths among their citizens.


In all, about 1.8 million people participated in four days of rituals taking place in Mecca and the nearby Mina encampment and on the plain of Arafat, a one-way journey of 21km. To enable maximum numbers of pilgrims to perform rituals on time and avoid fatal crushes, the Saudis constructed networks of concrete roads and flyovers that absorb and radiate heat.

Fit Muslims with the means are required to perform the pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, once in their lifetimes. Pilgrims traditionally secured hajj visas and made arrangements for their stay at local agents with partners in Saudi Arabia.

Hajj visas are allocated to countries on a quota system and allocated to individuals by lottery. Eager to boost revenues, the Saudi hajj ministry has taken over bookings and management.

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In 2022, the ministry introduced a new online platform requiring pilgrims to book packages covering flights, accommodation, food and transport. This has pushed costs up beyond the means of many. As a consequence, many opt to obtain tourist visas from local travel agencies. Once in the kingdom, they have nowhere to stay and no means of transport. In response to this year’s fatalities, Saudi Arabia says it has closed down dozens of these tourist agencies . The Saudis have also threatened fines and imprisonment for pilgrims without permits.

According to multiple media reports, pilgrims on expensive packages costing $6,000-$12,000 (€5,500-€11,200) per person have complained about inadequate air conditioning in tents, poor sanitation facilities, crowded transport, an absence of water points and traffic regulations forcing them to walk under the sun to reach ritual sites and tents. Indonesian pilgrim Fauziah told the BBC, “Many fainted due to overcrowding and overheating in the tents.”

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times