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Saudi Arabia Sensitive To Criticism Over Deadly Hajj Stampede


Over 700 people were killed this week when a stampede took place during the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The sheer volume of pilgrims every year has led to problems before. In fact, over 1,400 people were killed in a similar incident back in 1990. This week, Iran and other regional powers criticized the Saudi Arabian government for poor management of the crowds that come to their holy places. Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia's Middle East Institute. He joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Sick.

GARY SICK: It's a real pleasure.

SIMON: What do you read into Iran's outspoken criticism of Saudi Arabia over these deaths?

SICK: This is very standard stuff. The Iranians and the Saudis have a running battle about the Hajj. And the worst incident they've ever had was actually back in 1987. In each case, they've blamed the Saudis. And in each case, the Saudis have blamed the pilgrims for misbehaving, for not doing what they were told. And on the previous case, the Saudis broke diplomatic relations with Iran over the incident. And that was only restored a few years later after Khomeini died.

SIMON: In the United States, we tend to see oil as Saudi Arabia's base of influence. But in the region, Saudi Arabia, of course, calls itself the guardian of the holy places. And what does it mean to have so many countries in the region becoming critical of Saudi Arabia's management?

SICK: Whenever these incidents occur, the Saudis are, of course, extremely sensitive to that because their official title for the king is the Custodian of the Two Holy Places. His entire legitimacy is based on the fact that he has the duty to make the holy places accessible and keeping them Islamic. It is a huge job, and managing 2 million people on foot in a rather confined space and moving from place to place is a huge problem. And the Saudis have worked very hard to try to make that go as smoothly as possible. But inevitably, when you get a group of people that large all moving together, there are going to be problems.

SIMON: When the rhetoric gets as sharp as it has been over the past few days, should people in the region - for that matter, the rest of the world - worry that this verbal dispute might lead to something else?

SICK: There really is nobody else to take charge of the holy places. The Saudis have, as I say, worked very, very hard to make this go smoothly, and probably they will come through this. But it does mean that people who are inclined to criticize Saudi Arabia - and those numbers are growing because of their intervention in Yemen, their intervention in Bahrain, the policy that they've been following in Syria - they have their enemies. And those enemies are going to jump on these occasions and try to make the most of them.

SIMON: Does it create a domestic political problem in Iran when you have more than a hundred Iranians die on Saudi soil?

SICK: Yes. In the past, whenever these things have happened, there have been attacks on the - say, the Saudi Embassy, demonstrations of discontent. This will be something that will cause domestic concern in Iran for a long time. But the immediate effect of it, I think, will probably pass fairly soon.

SIMON: Gary Sick of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, thanks so much for being with us.

SICK: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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