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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Saudi Efforts for a Safe Hajj

Sep. 14, 2016

Muslims from around the world are gathering at the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia for a religious journey called Hajj.

All Muslims are required to go on the journey during their lifetimes, if capable. About 200 million are expected this year.

The annual pilgrimage began on Saturday. Jeddah International Airport, the gateway to Mecca, has a terminal especially for those who are taking part. Up to 13 flights land every hour during the busiest periods.

Pilgrims travel another 100 kilometers from the airport to the holy city. They can be easily spotted on their way to Mecca. They wear white robes to show that, before Allah, rich and poor are equal.

As they prepare to enter the holy city, they have safety on their minds, following a tragedy last year. It occurred when a large numbers of pilgrims converged at an intersection, leading to a deadly stampede. Saudi Arabia's government says that 769 people were killed. It was not the first such tragedy. There have been 5 incidents since 1990 that left at least 100 dead.

Another dark shadow over this year's pilgrimage is the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In January, Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite cleric. Outraged young Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and that lead to the 2 countries severing diplomatic ties.

Negotiations were launched to find a way for Iranians to join the pilgrimage, but later broke down. Saudi Arabia is home to the 2 holiest mosques in Islam -- but Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has questioned Saudi Arabia's ability to manage them. Iran decided to not allow its citizens to travel to Mecca.

A neighborhood on the outskirts of Mecca is home to over 100,000 tents where pilgrims stay during their trip. Despite the huge number of visitors, Iranians are nowhere to be seen.

Criticism from Iran put pressure on the Saudi government to beef up security. It's going to great lengths to restore its reputation.

There has always been a quota on the number of pilgrims that can visit from specific countries. This year, Saudi authorities are enforcing it. They say they'll deport visitors above the quota and ban them from returning for 10 years.

All pilgrims are required to wear an ID bracelet. Police can scan anyone's bracelet with a smartphone and instantly get information about that person. The system helps them overcome communication problems with visitors who do not speak Arabic.

Another key concern is medical issues. Temperatures can soar to over 40 degrees Celsius, making dehydration a real risk. Authorities believe the heat drove up the death toll in last year’s accident.

That occurred as pilgrims were on their way to a symbolic ritual called "stoning the devil." This year, people are moving smoothly through the site of the accident.

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke out against criticism from Iran for the first time. He said the kingdom rejects efforts to use the religious event for political purposes, or to create sectarian differences.

Hajj season ends on Thursday.

NHK's Dubai bureau chief Hideki Nakayama joins Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from Jeddah's International Airport in western Saudi Arabia -- the gateway to Mecca.

Beppu: Hajj is a religious event, but it seems this year it is colored by the political rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Nakayama: Yes, that's right. I'm in the terminal that's especially for the people that arrive for the pilgrimage. There are no visitors from Iran. In the past few years, there have been an average 60,000 Iranians. But this year, many of them have decided to go to the holy sites for Shia Muslims in Iraq. The Iranian government believes that the number of people making that pilgrimage will likely be double that of last year. This would mean stronger ties among the Shia Muslims, which could upset Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Shibuya: Saudi Arabia's security measures seem to be successful so far.

Nakayama: Yes, there have been no reports of any accidents so far. After last year's tragedy, the whole Islamic world is watching to see if Hajj season will end this year without any accidents. Iran has proposed that holy sites should not be administered by any one country, but internationally. The suggestion has upset Saudi Arabia. The safety of the pilgrims is a serious concern to all Islamic countries, and so Saudi Arabia has its credibility at stake as it comes up with safety measures.

Beppu: Are some people suggesting that managing the holy sites is becoming a burden for the Kingdom?

Nakayama: That's not necessarily the case. The authority of the King of Saudi Arabia stems from the fact that it manages the 2 holiest sites in Islam. They are in Mecca and Medina. There are also economic benefits to managing the sites. The religious tourism by pilgrims is an important source of revenue for the country. Faced with falling crude oil prices, the Saudi Arabian government has drafted a 15-year economic reform program, called "Vision 2030."

In it, Saudi Arabia sets a target of increasing the number of visitors for another pilgrimage called Umrah to 30 million a year. It is currently at 8 million. In order to draw visitors to the holy sites, it has become extremely important to demonstrate the safety and convenience of the pilgrimages. There is no doubt that operating this year's Hajj safely will serve as the best example of this.