Record Heatwave and Permit Issues Lead to Tragic Toll During Hajj Pilgrimmage in Mecca

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Saudi officials reported that extreme heat during this year’s Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca led to the deaths of more than 1,300 participants, shedding light on the challenges faced during one of Islam’s holiest gatherings. The Saudi Press Agency stated that most casualties were among those who lacked official permits, indicating a troubling connection between unauthorized participation and the high mortality rate.

Temperatures in Mecca soared to a staggering 51.8 degrees Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit) during the pilgrimage, as noted by the country’s national meteorological centre. This year’s Hajj, participated in by 1.8 million pilgrims, was marked by such intense heat that health services were pushed to their limits, providing over 465,000 treatments, including significant care to unauthorized attendees.

Authorities underscored that 83 percent of those who died were pilgrims who did not have the official sanction to undertake the Hajj and had traveled long distances under harsh conditions without sufficient shelter. The dead were from more than 10 countries ranging from the United States to Indonesia, with Egyptians accounting for the largest contingent. Arab diplomats reported that among the Egyptian fatalities, 630 were unregistered pilgrims.

The Saudi government has faced criticism over its preparedness and response to the annual event, which draws Muslim faithful from around the world. The Minister of Health, Fahd Al-Jalajel, defended the management of this year’s Hajj, praising the health system’s efforts during an interview with Al-Ekhbariya, a state-affiliated television channel. Al-Jalajel highlighted the comprehensive medical services rendered to pilgrims, emphasizing the challenges posed by the unprecedented temperatures.

Despite the significant number of deaths, Al-Jalajel did not specify how many were directly attributed to the heat, although he acknowledged that heat stress had been a major health issue this year. The pilgrimage ritual involves several days of outdoor activities, often in the full glare of the sun, including long walks and the symbolic stoning of the devil at Mina.

Pilgrims without permits often face harsher conditions due to lack of access to regulated amenities like air-conditioned tents and medical services, which are available to registered participants. Illegal pilgrimages are a recurring issue, with many unable to afford the formal expenses associated with Hajj, opting instead to risk fines and deportation.

The Saudi government had reportedly cleared hundreds of thousands of unregistered pilgrims from Mecca prior to this year’s Hajj, but reports suggest that as many as 400,000 may have participated without proper registration. This issue extends beyond Saudi borders; just this week, the Egyptian Prime Minister, Mostafa Madbouly, ordered punitive measures against 16 tourism companies that facilitated unauthorized pilgrimages.

As climate conditions become more severe, the challenges of managing large-scale outdoor events like the Hajj are expected to increase. Studies predict that heat stress levels during the pilgrimage could frequently exceed extreme danger thresholds in upcoming decades due to global warming, complicating future pilgrimages.

While the timing of Hajj shifts annually, moving about 11 days earlier each year in relation to the Gregorian calendar, concerns are mounting over the safety and sustainability of this vitally important spiritual journey in the face of escalating climate impacts and increasing pilgrimage demands.