At least 20 people were killed when a bus carrying pilgrims crashed in Saudi Arabia’s southern province of Asir on Monday. Another 29 pilgrims were injured and the death toll is expected to rise, according to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news outlet.
According to local reports, the bus was full of passengers on their way to perform the Umrah pilgrimage in the Islamic holy city of Mecca when its brakes failed, causing it to collide into a barrier at a bridge and overturn before catching fire. The victims included Saudi nationals and various others.
Videos circulating online showed massive flames and thick black smoke engulfing the bus as civil defense forces struggled to put out the fire.
Umrah, known as Islam's lesser major pilgrimage as it is not compulsory, is performed by Muslims all year long. Millions visit Saudi Arabia each year to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said last month that a total of 4.8 million foreign pilgrims had arrived in the kingdom to perform the pilgrimage since the start of the Islamic year at the end of July 2022.
The bus crash coincides with the first week of the holy month of Ramadan, during which umrah activities increase in Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf kingdom is home to Islam’s most sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, attracting Muslims from around the world to perform pilgrimages including the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. The pilgrims’ journey is perilous as roads become busy and holy sites overcrowded during pilgrimage season. Several deadly accidents and stampedes have occurred over the past years, often prompting criticism of Saudi Arabia's management.
During the 2015 hajj season, more than 2,000 pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede in Mina, near Mecca, in one of the worst hajj disasters ever recorded. Nearly 500 of the victims were Iranian. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, accused the Saudi authorities of incompetence and failure to provide security for the pilgrims, calling for new management of the hajj.
A year later, 19 people were killed and 29 others injured when a bus overturned on a road between Medina and Mecca. In 2018, four British pilgrims were killed when their bus crashed into a fuel tanker. Another bus crash in 2019 killed 35 pilgrims near Mecca.
Despite the issues, Saudi Arabia continues to promote the pilgrimage season each year, issuing guidance and rules for pilgrims to abide by to ensure their safety. The kingdom attaches great importance to religious tourism as it seeks to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on oil.