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Hajj 2013 gets hi-tech security boost

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

This year’s hajj is likely to be one of the safest in recent years. Saudi Arabia has secured the holy city of Makkah for the arrival of millions of hajjis. The equipment list is vast, the personnel well-trained, and with the installation of 1,166 CCTV cameras at the Grand Mosque alone out of 4,200 CCTV cameras throughout the entire route, along with security access cards, the hajj should proceed without incident. Facial recognition software and e-services are also in position.

Saudi Arabia is boosting security at this year's hajj due to the potential for terrorism or demonstrations during the pilgrimage. The kingdom is no stranger to violence during previous hajj seasons with riots based on religio-political views erupting and causing casualties and deaths in the hundreds. Currently, unrest in Syria, testy relations with Iran, and the push by the Egyptian government to drive the Muslim Brotherhood underground provides incubators for potential threats. Importantly, al-Qaeda and affiliates still seek to punish the kingdom and disrupt the very fabric of Saudi society by inciting violence during this key time. Clearly, Riyadh is taking strong measures to ensure a smooth hajj as all eyes focus on Saudi capabilities to protect visitors to the kingdom.

Crowd control represents a major aspect of the hajj. It is important to remember that crowds are a flowing continuum. The physics of crowd motion is nonlinear, time sensitive, and is easily converted to graphic needs and analysis by Saudi authorities. Technology helps in this mission to provide a secure hajj. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to monitor and provide real-time online information about the movement of pilgrims. Consequently, hajj crowd safety is to plan for pedestrian and crowd control in accordance with geo-spatial considerations. This forecasting includes, for example, the separation of pedestrians from vehicular traffic during the movement of pilgrims from Arafat to Muzdalifah as well as the controlled movement of hajjis to avoid overcrowding, specifically the rate of 300,000 pilgrims per hour at the Jamarat Bridge. Such an approach in crowd dynamics adopted by Saudi authorities helps to guarantee public safety and security.

Modern technologies

The combination of understanding crowd dynamics coupled with the deployment of Saudi security forces across a broad spectrum of responsibilities should make this year’s hajj a spiritual success.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Saudi security is well aware of hajj crowd behavior. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef stated that hajj security measures this year will make use of technologies and equipment supplied by Saudi’s various defense units and equipment supplied by the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the General Intelligence are already in place with over 95,000 security personnel being deployed.

Electronic gates are now installed at the entrance of Makkah to control the flow of pilgrims and guarantee that only those with the appropriate permits are allowed access.

There is a new system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Makkah, while restricting repeat visits. Finally, Saudi authorities finished major construction work in and around the Jamarat Bridge area. Additional access ways, footbridges, and emergency exits are in place, with the addition of concrete walls to avoid overcrowding.

Saudi Civil Defense

Saudi Civil Defense plays a major role during the hajj. During Tawaf and Mas’a, 26 Saudi Civil Defense units are deployed in the Grand Mosque to provide security and emergency services to pilgrims. Ambulances, respirators and vehicles to transport infirm and the injured are in position just in case. Saudi Civil Defense is deploying service vehicles equipped with devices for air filtration and exhaust fans, in order to lower temperature in tunnels used by pilgrims. The hydraulic fans in the device have the capacity to clean 200,000 cubic meters of air and smoke in an hour.

Specifically, Saudi Civil Defense is stationed in the nave of the Tawaf, where pilgrims make the circumambulation of the Kaaba, and the Mas’a, where pilgrims walk between the two hills of Safa and Marwah. They will be tasked with providing first aid, and carrying out medical evacuation of the injured, and elderly pilgrims who may encounter health problems. All health related activity concerning the hajj is vetted by the World Health Organization and other non-governmental health organizations in conjunction with Saudi hajj authorities. Roughly 22,000 health professionals are on duty with approximately 141 preliminary health care centers operational.

Hajjis themselves are an important part of guaranteeing a safe experience during this year’s pilgrimage. It is mandatory for pilgrims to turn in all passports to the United Agents Office representatives to enable the latter to complete all travel formalities to Makkah. Pilgrims are issued an identification card and wristband containing biometric technology that must be carried at all times for quick proof of identity. In addition, the health of hajjis themselves is paramount. Routine immunizations for all pilgrims should be up-to-date. Hepatitis A and B and typhoid vaccines are also recommended. Hand sanitizers, cold, diarrhea, and skin irritation medication are prudent.

Overall, the hajj is one of the world’s largest mass events. The combination of understanding crowd dynamics coupled with the deployment of Saudi security forces across a broad spectrum of responsibilities should make this year’s hajj a spiritual success.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

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