SNAPSHOT: HAJJ PILGRIMAGE TRAVEL AND SECURITY RISKS
On 9 August, over two million Muslims are set to perform the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. The month is set to bring heightened travel and security risks.
- Hajj, is the name of the month as well as the act of pilgrimage Muslims make to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This year, Hajj is set to begin on 9 August and end on 14 August. However, the dates may vary by one day, due to the month being based on the lunar calendar and the sighting of a new moon.
- Hajj is the last act within the five pillars of Islam, and every Muslim is required to complete it at least once in their lifetime, if able to do so
- Hajj can be a hazardous journey for pilgrims, due to the risk of terrorist attacks, overcrowding, and related crowd control incidents that have in the past resulted in high loss of life
- Businesses and services in many Muslim-majority countries tend to scale back operations during Hajj, with staff working fewer hours to fast, especially during the first nine days of the month.
- Hajj is one of the world’s largest gatherings; in 2018, over two million people made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Saudi authorities have at times struggled to cope with the huge influx of people, leading to a number of mass-fatality incidents. Since 1990, some 4,761 people have died in stampedes, most recently in 2015, when 2,236 pilgrims were killed when a crowd panicked. In response to these incidents, Saudi authorities increased security measures around Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, the Great Mosque of Mecca. Roadblocks and checkpoints have also been set up around the city for Hajj, which has reduced overcrowding and the risk of stampedes. However, this has increased travel congestion in and around Mecca.
- Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, have accused Saudi Arabia of using Hajj to leverage its political power in the region. In the past two years, Riyadh has banned a large number of people from Libya, Syria, Yemen, Qatar, and the Palestinian Territories from acquiring Hajj visas. Saudi Arabia is either in direct conflict or dispute with all of these countries. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia – alongside Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – imposed a land, maritime and air blockade on Qatar. This heavily impacted the number of Qatari citizens who were granted Hajj visas, as the number dropped to 70 in 2017 from 12,000 the previous year. This policy has elevated the low risk of anti-Saudi protests in the country from groups sympathetic to countries whose citizens have been banned from performing the Hajj pilgrimage, resulting in arrests and scuffles between security forces and demonstrators.
- Despite there being spikes in terrorist attacks during some Muslim religious festivals, such as Ramadan, there has not been a terrorist attack during Hajj in over two decades. The threat of attacks by extremist militant Islamist groups is very low, as any attack on Mecca would lead to severe condemnation from around the Muslim world.
- There is a potential threat from Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen who have repeatedly targeted Saudi airports, military bases and infrastructure in drone and ballistic missile strikes since January 2019. Most at risk are the southern provinces of Asir, Jizan, and Najran. Areas further north, including the capital Riyadh, have also been targeted. In May 2019, Saudi authorities claimed that they intercepted a Houthi ballistic missile over the city of Taif, 87km east of Mecca, that had been heading towards the holy city. The Houthis denied responsibility for the attack. The incident highlights the low risk of drone and ballistic missile strikes in the area surrounding Mecca.
- Due to potential terrorism and civil unrest threats, the Saudi authorities have deployed 17,000 security forces personnel this year in order to deal with any potential threats in and around Mecca.
- There is also a heightened health risk this year, due to an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Central Africa and a spike in measles cases around the world. In July 2019, the Saudi government banned travellers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, due to fears of Ebola spreading among pilgrims.
- Most Muslim-majority countries observe four to five days of public holidays during Hajj. In Qatar, Hajj is observed with a 10-day public holiday, while Saudi Arabia it is marked by a religious holiday lasting 12 days. Business personnel should anticipate limited operational and business hours in the public and private sectors and implement business continuity plans to minimise disruption.
- Anticipate limited operating and business hours in the public and private sectors, and implement business continuity plans to minimise disruption.
- Managers with large numbers of Muslim staff intending to undertake Hajj should ensure business-continuity plans are in place.
- Travellers should remain vigilant when travelling to Saudi Arabia and report any suspicious behaviour to the relevant authorities.
- Non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia are also advised to practise good cultural awareness and respect local customs and social norms.
- Access to Mecca as well as Medina is restricted to Muslims only. Non-Muslims attempting to enter the cities face deportation from Saudi Arabia.
- Business travellers should expect congested traffic around Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah. Delays should be expected at airports, including King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) in Jeddah, and King Khalid International Airport (RUH) in the capital Riyadh, as they become heavily congested during the Hajj period.