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Saudi Arabia under growing pressure over deadliest Hajj in 25 years

Saudi authorities quick to blame pilgrims for the crushing death of 717 people, but some crowd science experts disagree

Saudi Arabia, under growing pressure to account for a crush that killed more than 700 people this week at the Hajj pilgrimage near Mecca, on Friday suggested that pilgrims failing to follow crowd control rules bore some blame for the worst disaster at Islam’s holiest sites in 25 years.

Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said in a news release posted on his ministry's website that an investigation would be conducted rapidly and a final toll calculated. At least 863 pilgrims were injured.

"The investigations into the incident of the stampede that took place today in Mina, which was perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities, will be fast and will be announced as has happened in other incidents," the news release said.

Falih's comments — which came hours after Riyadh’s top Hajj official Prince Khaled al-Faisal suggested that “some pilgrims with African nationalities” had triggered the crush — were likely to be seen as an attempt to deflect responsibility. Hajj safety is politically sensitive for the kingdom's Saud dynasty, since the ruling family presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina. The pilgrimage has seen several deadly crowd incidents, including one that killed 1,426 people in 1990.

With photographs of piles of bodies from this week's incident circulating on social media and pilgrims frantically searching for missing compatriots, the efforts to uncover the facts — and to assign blame — appeared to be growing Friday. Saudi King Salman ordered a review of Hajj plans after the disaster, in which two big groups of pilgrims collided at a crossroads in Mina, a few miles east of Mecca, on their way to performing the "stoning of the devil" ritual at Jamarat.

But officials from the kingdom's regional political rival, Iran — which lost 131 of its nationals in the crush Thursday — were quick to express fierce indignation. They said the incident was further proof that Riyadh was incapable of managing the event.

"I ask the Saudi Arabian government to take the responsibility of this catastrophe and fulfill its legal and Islamic duties in this regard," Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said Friday in a statement published by the state news agency, IRNA. Rouhani was in New York City, where he was set to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

In Tehran, protesters held a demonstration after Friday noon prayers. Iranian state television said they were showing their anger at "Saudi incapability and incompetence to run the Hajj."

Some Iranian pilgrims who survived the incident described Saudi Arabia's response as "too little, too late," according to Iran's state-run Press TV. The pilgrims were quoted as saying that the rescuers arrived at the scene two hours after the incident, and that they started collecting dead bodies first instead of helping the injured.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Turki denied those charges, telling Saudi media on Friday that security forces had immediately responded and begun to rescue those who fell in the crush. It was unclear whether Riyadh had — and would release — CCTV footage of the pile-up.

Crowd science experts said such incidents often unfold in a formulaic, even predictable, way. “It’s often portrayed as a panic or hysterical crowd behavior, but what it actually is too many people in too small a space,” said Amanda Ripley, U.S.-based author of “The Unthinkable,” a book about how people react and survive in disaster situations. “So there’s a grim, almost mathematical reality to these kinds of tragedies.”

Likewise, she said, Riyadh’s response fits a pattern of authorities attempting to avoid or dilute responsibility for such disasters. “There is a long history of officials all over the world blaming victims for stampedes,” she said, pointing to the last major crush near Mecca in 2006. Then, the kingdom’s Interior ministry representative said the incident, which killed more than 360 people, “was fate,” and that it was “destined by God.”

Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at the U.K.'s Manchester Metropolitan University who has consulted Saudi Arabia on how to avoid such incidents, said Riyadh has made considerable efforts to improve safety at the holy sites after a string of fatal accidents — including crowd incidents, fires, and, earlier this month, a crane collapse that killed about 100 people.

But with millions of people pouring through this week during the most important Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the logistical challenge of preventing bottlenecks is considerable. “These systems are modeled on a holistic view,” Still said. “You fix one area and pressure builds up somewhere else, so you need to understand whole system.”

Al Jazeera and Reuters. Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.

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