‘People were fainting all around': UAE's Haj pilgrims grateful to have survived deadly heat wave in Saudi

It was 'extremely hard' for the elderly and disabled, a pilgrim who returned from Makkah said


Nasreen Abdulla

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Published: Thu 20 Jun 2024, 1:31 PM

Last updated: Tue 25 Jun 2024, 10:26 AM

UAE residents are exhausted but thankful after having braved the intense heatwave in Saudi Arabia to complete the pilgrimage of a lifetime. A lethal heatwave, which caused temperatures in Makkah to reach up to 51.8ºC, has resulted in thousands of deaths.

Saudi Arabia said Sunday that more than 1,300 faithful died during the Haj pilgrimage which took place during intense heat, and that most of the deceased did not have official permits.

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Dr Syed Ahamed, who works at Royal Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, said he attended to seven people who fainted while waiting to take a train from Mount Arafat to Muzdalifa. Talking to Khaleej Times from Makkah, he said: “People were dehydrated, tired and just struggling to manage the heat. Around me, I could see others helping a lot more people.”

His wife, Fathima Zohara Dawood, said she saw many people faint. “One of the most difficult parts was when we were travelling from Mount Arafat to Muzdalifa. We had to take the train but because of the rush, we waited on the crowded platform for over three hours.”

The core rituals of Haj began on Dhul Hijjah 8 when the pilgrims, also known as the hujjaj, entered the city of Mina. From there, the following day they went to Mount Arafat where they spent the entire day in worship. By dusk, the hujjaj travelled to the city of Muzdalifah where they spent the night. The following day, they travelled back to Mina where they proceeded to do the 'Rami Al Jamarat', or the ritual of stoning. This year, due to the heatwave, the jamarat – or the stone pillar – was closed between 11am and 4pm.

Despite the challenges, Dubai resident and Zanzibari expat Ayda Abubakar Ali said there was a communal spirit in the air, which powered her on. “Everywhere we went, the locals cheered us on loudly, misting us with water and handing out cold drinks,” she said. “It was heartening and so emotional to see the dedication of the Haj employees and local volunteers.”

Larger crowds

Fathima said that due to the limitations in time at the stoning ritual, it was extremely crowded at the other times, making it one of the most challenging experiences of her Haj. “Many women from our group didn't go and asked Ramy to be done on our behalf because of the crowd and exhaustion,” she said.

Ayda agreed. “The most challenging was the Jamarat rites as the temperatures were sky high combined with a crowd of 1.8 million people all trying to achieve the same thing at the same time and place,” she said. “I heard many ambulances going to and from throughout the day and I saw people overwhelmed and exhausted on the sidewalks. For the elderly and disabled, it was extremely hard.”

Another Haj pilgrim from the UAE, Madiha Aslam Habib, said the experience of Haj was beautiful but the Jamarat rites was extremely difficult. “There are four floors in total and the roof top was without shade,” she said. “The scarcity of water made several haajis faint. Transportation was also a big challenge. There were no private taxis or buses to serve the haajis in many parts, which made it extremely challenging for the weak and elderly.”

Managing the heat

According to Dr Syed, the flow of people needed to be better in many places. “There were several areas where diversions were set up,” he said. “This meant the pilgrims were easily walking six to seven kilometres more than what they actually needed to walk. While I am aware this is to manage the crowds, it was extremely challenging in the heat, even fatal in some cases. I think it needed to be managed better.”

Madiha called on dedicated teams to manage the heat. “Extreme high temperatures made it difficult for hajis to perform their duties,” she said. “To combat heatwaves, there must be a dedicated team providing essentials like fluid and water to keep haajis hydrated and guide people on their way back.”

Although several volunteers were there to hand out drinks and provide food packets to the pilgrims, many said they were sporadically distributed. Fathima said when she re-entered the city of Aziziah after her rituals on Dhul Hijjah 10, many shops were closed due to it being Eid.

“We had been walking for a long time and there was no one in sight to ask for some water,” she said. “At one point, I was exhausted and my husband helped me to sit in a shaded area. I passed out for a while. Luckily, he managed to find someone who gave him a bottle of water. Once I drank the water, I felt better. However, since that incident, my body has been extremely weak.”


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