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When a deadly fire killed 15 school girls in Makkah

When a deadly fire killed 15 school girls in Makkah
The tragedy, which shocked the country and the wider Islamic world, was a tipping point in the relationship between the state and citizens of Saudi Arabia and the religious police. (Magnum Photos)
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Updated 20 May 2020

When a deadly fire killed 15 school girls in Makkah

When a deadly fire killed 15 school girls in Makkah

The tragic deaths, reportedly because the religious police hindered the rescue operation, caused outrage that eventually led to their powers being curtailed

Summary

On March 11, 2002, 15 young women lost their lives in a fire at their school in Makkah when members of the religious police prevented Civil Defense officers from entering and stopped pupils from fleeing the building because the girls weren’t wearing abayas or headscarves.

The tragedy, which shocked the country and the wider Islamic world, was a tipping point in the relationship between the state and citizens of Saudi Arabia and the religious police, aka the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Since the tragedy, the committee, a government body established in 1940 but reinvented in more radical form in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the seizure of Makkah’s Grand Mosque by religious extremists, has been progressively stripped of most of its powers.

Once a common sight on the streets, its officers and volunteers are now rarely seen in a rapidly modernizing Saudi Arabia that is benefiting from the reforms outlined in Vision 2030 and, under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reverting to a more moderate form of Islam.

JEDDAH: The tragic death of 15 young girls in the Makkah girls’ school fire that occurred in March 2002 will forever be a black mark in our memory, not only because of the number of innocent girls who lost their lives but also because of the circumstances that led to their death and their implications.

It was reported that the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — Saudi Arabia’s so-called religious police, or more commonly known as the “hayaa” — prevented the schoolgirls from escaping the burning building and hindered rescue workers from entering the building because the students were not covered in their abayas and headscarves. 

The actions of the religious police caused outrage and condemnation both inside the country and internationally. A government inquiry concluded that the educational authorities were responsible for neglecting fire safety at the school, but rejected the accusations that the actions of religious police contributed to the deaths, despite the accounts of eyewitnesses and Civil Defense officers.

Nevertheless, due to public anger and criticism of the religious police, the General Presidency for Girls’ Education, which administered girls’ schools and was controlled by conservative clerics, was scrapped.

An Arab News team which visited the school yesterday found a large number of abayas (black gowns), shoes and bags left by the girls in the rush to get out of the building following the fire.

From a report in Arab News on March 12, 2002

The fire at Makkah’s Intermediate School No. 31 (for girls aged 13 to 15) started on the morning of March 11, 2002, caused by an unattended cigarette in a room on the top floor, according to the official inquiry. Others claimed it was caused by an electrical short circuit from a stove in the tearoom. It quickly spread, the girls panicked and rushed toward a narrow stairwell in the three-story building, where the majority of the deaths occurred as a staircase collapsed. Fifteen girls died in the tragedy and more than 50 were injured. The ill-equipped rented property was overcrowded, with more than 800 pupils and about 50 teachers. The inquiry found that the school lacked fire extinguishers, alarms and emergency stairs and exits. Furthermore, the windows, as in all girls’ schools, were covered with iron grilles and could not be opened. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Key Dates

  • 1

    15 pupils — nine Saudis, an Egyptian, a Guinean, a Chadian, a Nigerian and a student from Niger — die in a fire at Intermediate Girls’ School No. 31 in Makkah.

    Timeline Image March 11, 2002

  • 2

    Arab News publishes a Civil Defense report accusing the religious police of having “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls,” resulting in an “increased number of casualties.”

  • 3

    The head of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education is forced into early retirement and the organization, judged responsible for safety failings and overcrowding at the school, is merged with the Education Ministry.

  • 4

    A royal decree strips religious police of privileges, bans them from pursuing, questioning or arresting anyone suspected of a crime and urges them to “encourage virtue and forbid vice by kindly and gently advising.”

    Timeline Image April 11, 2016

  • 5

    King Abdullah replaces the head of the religious police with a more moderate figure.

    Timeline Image Jan. 13, 2012

  • 6

    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledges to return Saudi Arabia to its past of ‘moderate Islam’ at the FII in Riyadh

    Timeline Image Oct. 24, 2017

Many other factors contributed to the horrible incident. According to witnesses, the main gate of the building was locked by the male guard, who was away at the moment the fire started. Firefighters reached the school, only to find that members of the religious police — who usually roamed outside girls’ schools to make sure that the girls and female staff were properly dressed and covered when arriving and leaving — were preventing anyone from fleeing or entering because the girls were uncovered. Precious time went by as girls suffocated, screamed for help and trampled over each other before the regular police were able to intervene and allow the firefighters to enter.

Firefighters reached the school, only to find that members of the religious police were preventing anyone from fleeing or entering because the girls were uncovered

Maha Akeel

The residential building-turned-school had been rented since 1990 and, like all such buildings, was not suitable for use as a school. The General Presidency for Girls’ Education rented the buildings that housed most girls’ schools at that time. Most of the buildings had small rooms, few bathrooms, narrow staircases, small, dusty playgrounds and no proper science labs, enough computers or art classes. Most importantly, they lacked safety measures. Unfortunately, rented buildings are still being used for schools to this day, although the numbers have decreased in recent years, and better evaluation and monitoring of their facilities is applied.

This tragic story brought attention to corruption, neglect, dilapidated facilities and the religious establishment in rare public criticism in the local media. Consequently, the government decided to dismantle the General Presidency for Girls’ Education — an autonomous government agency created when girls’ schools first opened in 1960 — and place responsibility for the administration of girls’ schools with the Ministry of Education, which also managed boys’ schools.




A page from the Arab News archive showing the news on March 12, 2002.

The religious police were, for so long, a feared presence in public places, not necessarily because they were “promoting virtue and preventing vice” as they saw it, but mostly because of their harassment, physical abuse and arbitrary arrests, especially of women for such trivial matters as not covering the face or not wearing the proper abaya. Even in the Great Mosque of Makkah, they would gawk at women and order them to cover their faces. They were a law unto themselves and imposed restrictions on every aspect of people’s lives that had nothing to do with religion, but rather their own narrow-minded interpretations and shows of power. They patrolled public areas to enforce dress codes, gender segregation and prayer breaks.

In 2016, responding to growing discontent over the violent behavior of the religious police, which caused over the years several incidents of deaths and injuries, the government curtailed some of their powers by disallowing them from detaining, pursuing or questioning suspects. They were required to act “kindly and gently” and only report suspicious activity to law enforcement officers for them to take the necessary action.

Today, they are rarely seen in public places. With the new rights gained by women, such as driving, the removal of gender segregation barriers, and the opening up of the country to entertainment — which were all things they objected to — little role is left for them except within their assigned mandate.

  • Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1


Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally

Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally
Updated 42 sec ago

Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally

Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally
  • Fully recovered from a crash last March, Al-Rajhi is back and will be joined by co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz
  • Their itinerary includes a timed super special race over eight kilometers on Wednesday before the four-stage, off-road odyssey with a total distance of 1,473 km

The first round of the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies starts on Wednesday with the Andalucía Rally and Saudi driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi of the Yazeed Racing team has returned from a neck injury he suffered at the Sharqiya Baja Rally last March.

While Al-Rajhi’s medical team has given him the green light to return to racing after a full year of recovery, co-driver Michael Orr, who suffered injuries in the same accident, is not expected back until the Kazakhstan Rally in June.

So Al-Rajhi will get back behind the wheel alongside German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz for the Andalucía Rally, which runs through Sunday. Their Toyota Hilux is powered by the Belgian Overdrive Team.

The Saudi motorsport star, who is participating in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies for the eighth year in a row, is grateful for his recovery from a race touched by tragedy.

“Accidents are part of racing and drivers cannot predict them so we are very lucky that we both walked away,” Al-Rajhi said. 

“I wish a speedy recovery for my colleague and navigator, Michael, who cannot participate with me because he has to complete his treatment sessions, but I expect him to return in the next rally.”

At the Andalusia Rally, Al-Rajhi and von Zitzewitz have an itinerary that includes a timed super special race over eight kilometers on Wednesday before the four-stage, off-road odyssey with a total distance of 1,473 km.

“The time I was recovering gave me a short break to recharge all my mental and physical strength for a new season of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies,” Al-Rajhi said. “I am really excited to take up the challenge behind the wheel again.”

As a pair, Al-Rajhi and von Zitzewitz have achieved some strong results in several cross-country rallies since 2019.

“Dirk is back on board with me and we had a great collaboration the last time we were together,” Al-Rajhi said. “So we are looking forward to winning this rally.”

Al-Rajhi and von Zitzewitz won two stages on home soil at the Dakar Rally in January.

“I am very excited to be back alongside Yazeed on the Toyota Hilux,” von Zitzewitz said. 

“I am looking forward to a very intense and challenging race, as the competition will be strong at the Andalucía Rally. I am happy and looking forward to a great race.”


US contractor leaves Iraq base over rocket attacks

US contractor leaves Iraq base over rocket attacks
Updated 19 min 22 sec ago

US contractor leaves Iraq base over rocket attacks

US contractor leaves Iraq base over rocket attacks
  • At least three foreign subcontractors and one Iraqi subcontractor have been wounded
  • Baghdad sent its national security adviser to Balad base last week to try to reassure the American firm

SAMARRA: US contractor Lockheed Martin has withdrawn its staff from an Iraq base where it had been maintaining the Iraqi army’s F-16 fighter jets, military sources said, after a spate of rocket attacks.
At least five attacks have targeted the Balad air base, where other US companies including Sallyport are also present, since the start of the year.
At least three foreign subcontractors and one Iraqi subcontractor have been wounded.
The attacks are rarely claimed, and when they are it is by obscure groups that experts say are a facade for Iran-backed Iraqi factions.
“On Monday morning, 72 Lockheed Martin technicians left,” a high-ranking Iraqi military official told AFP, while a second confirmed the move.
“The technical team in charge of maintenance of the F-16s left the Balad base for Irbil,” the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the first source added, requesting anonymity.
Baghdad had sent its national security adviser Qassim Al-Araji to the Balad base last week to try to reassure the American firm, days after the latest salvo.
Tahsin Al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, said Lockheed Martin would “continue to advise the Iraqi air force, even remotely,” citing contractual obligations.
The United States has provided Iraq with 34 F-16s, all stationed at Balad. It has also trained Iraqi pilots, while American contractors have been in charge of the fleet’s upkeep.
Irbil was long considered safer than the rest of Iraq, but the situation has changed recently and Washington has deployed a C-RAM rocket defense system as well as Patriot missiles there, as it has done in Baghdad to protect its troops and diplomats.
In mid-April, pro-Iran fighters sent an explosives-packed drone crashing into Irbil airport in the first reported use of such a weapon against a base housing US troops in Iraq.
The Pentagon has warned that attacks against the US-led coalition rose in the first three months of this year.
“In Iraq, Iran-aligned militias increased their attacks targeting coalition positions and assets this quarter, prompting a temporary departure of US contractors supporting Iraq’s F-16 program,” it said in a report to Congress released earlier this month.


Iraq’s president meets Saudi deputy defense minister in Baghdad

Iraq’s president meets Saudi deputy defense minister in Baghdad
Updated 31 min 9 sec ago

Iraq’s president meets Saudi deputy defense minister in Baghdad

Iraq’s president meets Saudi deputy defense minister in Baghdad

Iraq’s President Barham Salih receives Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman in the capital, Baghdad, Al Arabiya reported on Tuesday.

Developing...


France says a great deal still needs to be done to revive Iran nuclear deal

France says a great deal still needs to be done to revive Iran nuclear deal
Updated 47 min 57 sec ago

France says a great deal still needs to be done to revive Iran nuclear deal

France says a great deal still needs to be done to revive Iran nuclear deal

France’s foreign ministry says a great deal still needs to be done to revive Iran nuclear deal in very short timeframe.

More to follow ...


’It’s all a lie’: hesitancy hampers vaccine drive in war-scarred Syrian area

’It’s all a lie’: hesitancy hampers vaccine drive in war-scarred Syrian area
Updated 55 min 56 sec ago

’It’s all a lie’: hesitancy hampers vaccine drive in war-scarred Syrian area

’It’s all a lie’: hesitancy hampers vaccine drive in war-scarred Syrian area
  • Consignment of 54,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Idlib at April’s end, the first batch for opposition-held Syrian territory
  • The challenge in Idlib goes beyond doubts about vaccines as some question whether the virus itself is a threat

IDLIB: In northwest Syria, where health care is rudimentary and those displaced by war are packed into squalid camps, the arrival of vaccines to fight COVID-19 should have been cause for relief.
Instead, a UN-backed vaccination campaign has met with suspicion and mistrust by an exhausted population, who feel betrayed by their government and abandoned by the international community after a decade of conflict that ruined their lives.
“It’s all a lie, even if the dose is for free I wouldn’t take it,” said Jassem Al-Ali, who fled his home in the south of Idlib province and now lives in Teh camp, one of many in a region controlled by opponents of the Damascus government.
Youssef Ramadan, another camp resident who lived under bombardment for years, echoed the doubts. “Will we be like sheep who trust the herder until they are slaughtered?” he asked.
A consignment of 54,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Idlib at the end of April, the first batch for opposition-held Syrian territory, delivered through the global vaccine-sharing platform COVAX. Inoculations started on May 1.
“There is a large amount of hesitancy and what made it worse is everything in the media continuously about AstraZeneca and blood clots,” Yasser Naguib, a doctor who heads a local vaccine team working in opposition-held areas, told Reuters.
Similar concerns about the coronavirus vaccine have slowed the rollout in Europe and elsewhere amid worries about rare cases of blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca shot.
Most governments have said benefits far outweigh the risks, although some have restricted it to certain age groups. But the challenge in Idlib goes beyond doubts about vaccines. Some question whether the virus itself is a threat.
“If there really was coronavirus in Idlib you would hear about tens of thousands of people getting it,” said 25-year-old Somar Youssef, who fled his home in Idlib’s rural Maara region.
Naguib said it was challenging to convince people fasting during Ramadan to take a shot when they can’t take oral medication for any side effects, such as a fever. Eid Al-Fitr, marking the end of the Muslim month, starts this week.
“We are optimistic that after Eid it will be better,” he said, adding that a 55-strong team was working to raise awareness about virus risks and vaccine benefits.
At the same time as doses from COVAX landed in Idlib, 200,000 shots arrived in Damascus, part of the World Health Organization campaign to inoculate about 20 percent of Syria’s population, or 5 million people across the nation, this year.
Officials have not given any indication about take up in government-held areas, where Damascus also aims to use vaccines from Russia, the government’s military ally, and China.
In Idlib, Naguib said 6,070 people out of around 40,000 health care and humanitarian workers on a priority list had been vaccinated by May 9. But even some health care workers are wary.
A Reuters witness saw just seven out of 30 medical workers receiving vaccines on the first day of a campaign at one Idlib medical center. Initially, only three had volunteered.
“As a director of the kidney dialysis unit, I was the first one to get the vaccine and I wanted to encourage the rest, who were scared because of all the rumors about it,” said Taher Abdelbaki, a doctor at another clinic, the Ibn Sina medical center.
By the end of 2021, two more COVAX vaccine batches are expected to arrive in Idlib to inoculate about 850,000 people in a region of about 3.5 million people, a target that leaves the region’s vaccination teams with much work to do.
“We will not be their lab rats here in the north,” said Abdelsalam Youssef, a community leader in Teh camp.