The tragic deaths during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca are the result of a capitalist takeover of Islam.

The Abraj al Bait tower and hotel complex towers over the al Haram mosque

The Abraj al Bait tower and hotel complex towers over the al Haram mosque

At least 717 people were crushed to death today at Mina, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, where two million people are taking part in the annual hajj pilgrimage. People who travelled across the world hoping to have a profound experience of spiritual connection and solidarity with others instead found themselves victims of the Saudi’s increasingly rickety hajj machine.

Just two weeks ago, more than a hundred people were killed when a crane collapsed.

Organising an event as huge as hajj is an major logistical undertaking. Millions of people arrive from across the world, many speaking different languages. They have to be housed, fed, moved from place to place and kept cool and hydrated in the searing desert heat. There is a long history of deaths during hajj, most of which are ultimately due to overcrowding.

A lot of work has been done by the Saudis to improve infrastructure in recent years. However, the focus is on turning Mecca into an effective revenue generator, with not enough focus on health and safety and the needs of visitors.

Hajj is a major contributor to the Saudi economy, with each of the millions of participants spending an average of $6,000. An estimated 3% of Saudi GDP relies on hajj.  This has seen a huge real estate and construction boom in Mecca, with historical sites being bulldozed for new hotels.

The Saudi government is turning Mecca into an Islamic Disneyland, packing as many people in as possible.

According to Sami Amgawi, and activist working to preserve this heritage,

“They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains.”

House prices and rents have sky rocketed, creating massive profits for companies like the Saudi BinLadin group, run by a family with close ties to the al Saud royal family.

The house of Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Mohammed, was bulldozed to make way for public toilets. An Ottoman fortress overlooking Mecca – as well as the mountain it was situated on – was destroyed to build the Abraj al Bait tower, pictured above. The tower is one of the world’s tallest buildings, and houses a hotel complex with rooms costing up to $7,000 per night.

All this construction work, of course, is being done by migrant workers with virtually no rights.

Like Qatar and other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia is a virtual slave state with almost no workers’ rights. Up to 95% of the private sector workforce is made up of 8.3 million migrants, who are excluded from labour law and endure truly awful conditions.

They work under a system called kafala, or sponsorship. In the same way that all women in Saudi Arabia need the permission of a male guardian to travel, open a bank account or participate in society, kafala links the migrant’s work permit to the employer’s goodwill.

A migrant cannot change employer or leave the country without the written consent of their original sponsor. The system lends itself to abuses such as the confiscation of passports by employers, forced labour and non-payment of wages.

The International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) was recently alerted to a case of human trafficking and slavery by unions in Mauritania. Women in Mauritania were promised good jobs in childcare, but found themselves working as domestic slaves, and subject to violence and sexual assault.

Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian dictatorship and business empire run by the al Saud family. The Saudis are wiping out Islamic history and civilisation, and rewriting it in a fundamentalist and capitalist form.

Like all religions, Islam has both progressive and reactionary elements. Christianity contains both the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Christian Socialists of Liberation Theology. Islam is the same. While the West went through the Dark Ages, Islamic civilisation kept science, maths and enlightenment thought alive.

The Saudi sect, Wahhabism, is at odds with the progressive and egalitarian traditions in Islam, and Saudi funding is spreading Wahhabism far and wide. Saudi Arabia is responsible for much of the conflict in the region, from the bombing campaign in Yemen – using arms bought from Britain – to funnelling money to Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war.

Islam is cynically used for social control in an authoritarian capitalist state.

The Saudi regime is rotten and brutal, and will continue to exact a terrible human cost – on pilgrims to Mecca, on workers building the pilgrimage sites, and on ordinary people in the region caught in the crossfire of Saudi proxy wars.

Yet the West is addicted to Saudi oil, and to Saudi money: Saudi Arabia is a major buyer of weapons from the UK, and Saudi money is flowing into the London property market. This in turn leads to developers evicting ordinary people from their homes, such as the Sweets Way council tenants forcefully evicted from their homes today.

Until the West changes its dysfunctional relationship with Saudi Arabia, this corrupt regime will continue to destabilise the region and the world economy.

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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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