1987 Mecca incident

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Coordinates: 21°26′7.18″N 39°49′44.68″E / 21.4353278°N 39.8290778°E / 21.4353278; 39.8290778

The 1987 Mecca incident was a clash between Shia pilgrim demonstrators and the Saudi Arabian security forces, during the Hajj pilgrimage; it occurred in Mecca on 31 July 1987 and led to the deaths of over 400 people.[1] The event has been variously described as a "riot" or a "massacre". It arose from escalating tensions between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Since 1981, Iranian pilgrims had held an annual political demonstration against Israel and the United States,[2][a][3] but in 1987, a cordon of Saudi police and the Saudi Arabian National Guard had sealed part of the planned anti-Western[4] demonstration route, leading to a confrontation between them and the pilgrims. This escalated into a violent clash, followed by a deadly stampede.[2][b] According to some beliefs, the conflict depended less on the religious centrality of the site and more on political choreography.[5]

There is a controversy regarding the details of the incident, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia laying much of the blame on the other side.[citation needed] Official Saudi reports hold that 402 people died in the incident including 275 Iranian pilgrims, 85 Saudi police and 42 pilgrims from other countries. On the other hand, Iran reported the death of 400 Iranian pilgrims and the injury of several thousands.[2][c] According to The New York Times, more than 400 pilgrims had died, and thousands more injured. After the incident, Iranians attacked the Saudi, Kuwaiti and French Embassies, abducting four Saudis from the embassy.[3]


For years, Iranian pilgrims had tried to stage demonstrations called "Distancing Ourselves from Mushrikīn" (برائت از مشرکين) in the Muslim holy city of Mecca during the hajj.[6] "Anti shah, anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda during the Hajj" had been begun to spread by followers of Khomeini since around 1971.[7] These demonstrations had their origins in 1971, when Ruhollah Khomeini instructed his Shiite followers to distribute political messages when performing their pilgrimage. Even though a few Iranians were arrested for this act, the Saudi officials were generally apathetic, as they did not view these political messages to be a threat to the Saudi royalty.[2][d] After the revolution, Iran claimed that "the Hajj and the Holy places should be placed under international oversight as opposed to being managed by the Saudis alone." So the tension between Iran and Saudi based on the hajj was started in the 1980s. These disturbances were reacted to by the Saudi government with anger because "the Hajj is an important legitimizing factor for the Saudi ruling family".[7]

The first large strike between Shia pilgrims and Saudi security forces occurred in 1981.[7] In 1981, this was escalated into openly chanting political slogans in the Masjid al-Haram and the Prophet's Mosque, two of the holiest sites in Islam, resulting in violent clashes with Saudi security and one death.[2][e] In the same year, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein saying "crush these stupid Iranians" as Saddam pushed on with the invasion of Iranian territory.[8]

Before the demonstrations started, Khomeini instructed the Iranian pilgrims to maintain peace and remain civil during the pilgrimage.[9] In the following years, both sides tried to calm the situation: Khomeini urged his followers to maintain peace and order, not to distribute printed political material, and not to criticize Muslim governments. In return, Saudi officials reversed their earlier position and allowed two separate demonstrations to take place: One in Mecca, and the other in Medina.[2][f] By 1986, the situation was calm enough for Saudi officials to re-open the sealed al-Baqi' cemetery for Shiite pilgrims, and in response, Khomeini's representative formally thanked the Saudi King for the gesture.[10][g] However, in the same year, Iranian radical Mehdi Hashemi was accused of smuggling explosives on an airplane headed for Saudi Arabia, renewing Saudi fears. [11][citation needed][12]


According to the speech early in July 1987, Khoiniha said that "a mere march or demonstration by Iranians would not suffice. He demanded that the Saudi regime allow Iranian pilgrims to enter the Great Mosque in Mecca at the end of their demonstration where their representative would explain Iran’s case regarding the Iran Iraq war. " As a result of strict dialogues, it was allowed that "the demonstration would end half a kilometer before the great Mosque", but the decision "put the Saudi security forces on a high state of alert".[13]

On Friday 31 July 1987, the demonstration started amid heightened security after Friday's midday prayers, while Iranian pilgrims chanted "Death to America! Death to the Soviet Union! Death to Israel!".[3] The march was uneventful until towards the end of the planned route, where the demonstrators found their way blocked by Saudi riot police and National Guardsmen. At this point, some of the Iranians began to call for the demonstrations to press ahead and continue to the Great Mosque. While this was happening, unidentified persons began harassing the Iranian pilgrims by throwing bricks and other objects at them from a nearby location. These factors exacerbated the situation, escalating it into a violent clash between the Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security, with the Saudis reportedly using truncheons and electric prods and the Iranians using knives and clubs.[2][h]

The details are controversial.[citation needed]Saudi security personnel reportedly opened fire on the demonstrators, a charge which Saudi officials deny.[14] Iranian officials maintain that the Saudis had fired on the protesters without provocation, and that the demonstrations had been peaceful. Saudi officials insist that no shots were fired, and that all deaths were caused by the melee and stampede.[15] In a Washington news conference, the Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan claimed that "not one bullet was fired", blaming the violence on the Iranian pilgrims who he accused of "brandishing knives, clubs and broken glass drawn from beneath their cloaks".[16] Robin Wright also reports that "Many of the Iranian bodies, shown to American and European reporters immediately upon their return to Tehran, had bullet punctures."[17] Ami Ayalon, an Israeli politician, wrote that "most of the Iranian pilgrims apparently shot by Saudi security authorities during the demonstration.[18]


The rioting and the resulting stampede caused a reported 402 dead (275 Iranians, 85 Saudis including policemen, and 42 pilgrims from other countries) and 649 wounded (303 Iranians, 145 Saudis and 201 other nationals).[14] The Iranian news agency announced that "200 Iranians had been killed and more than 2,000 wounded".[3]


Memorial and Tombs of Victims in Tehran's Behesht-e Zahra

Further adding to the tensions were the demands made by Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha in 1987 to allow the Iranian pilgrims to hold their demonstrations within the Great Mosque itself, and without the presence of security guards.[19] Khoeiniha had been earlier appointed as the supervisor and personal representative of Ayatollah Khomeini for Hajj affairs, but had been expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1982.[20] Even though Mehdi Karrubi, who was Khomeini's official pilgrimage representative that year, tried to assure Saudi officials that the demonstrations would take place in the usual manner and in the agreed routes, it did little to quell the Saudi fears.[2][i]

After the incident 1987, the Hajj for three years between 1988 and 1990 was banned by Iran, Although "diplomatic ties were restored in 1991".[21][22]

On 1 August 1987, a spontaneous demonstration by enraged Iranians ended with attacks on the Kuwaiti and Saudi embassies in Tehran.[23] On the same day, the Iranian leader Khomeini called on Saudis to overthrow the House of Saud to avenge the pilgrims' deaths.[24]

Both sides took additional measures to bolster their view on the issue. Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran and reduced the number of permitted Iranian pilgrims to 45,000, down from 150,000 in earlier years. Iran boycotted the Hajj for three years, from 1988 to 1990.[25] In 1991, Iran and Saudi Arabia renewed diplomatic relations after coming to an agreement to allow Iranian pilgrims to perform the Hajj once more. The total number of pilgrims was set at 115,000, and the demonstrations were allowed to be held, but only in one specific location granted by the Saudis. Under this agreement, Iranian pilgrims continued their annual demonstration in the 1990s and 2000s with few or no incidents. They limited their rally to within the confines of their compound in Mecca.[26]

Approximately 20,000 Pakistani troops stationed in Saudi Arabia were sent back to Pakistan, as Saudi Arabia was uncomfortable with the presence of Shi'ite soldiers.[27]


Ali Khamenei said following the incident that "They are now propagandizing and claiming that this incident was a war between Shia and Sunni. This is a lie! Of course, there is a war, but a war between the American perception of Islam and true revolutionary Islam."[28]

Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri asked Muslim religious leaders to "wrest control of Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia from the royal family."[3] As the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, ostensibly an organ of the secular Baath Arab socialist movement in Iraq demanded, visiting Islam's holy sites by Iranians should be banned.[3] The Party of God in Lebanon asked Saudi Arabia to "pay for the deaths of the Shiite pilgrims."[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 183
  2. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 190
  3. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 190
  4. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 182
  5. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 183
  6. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 186
  7. ^ Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival,page 177
  8. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 189
  9. ^ Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East,page 188
  1. ^ "Iranian Official Urge 'Uprooting' of Saudi Royalty", The New York Times, 3 August 1987
  2. ^ "Gulf Tensions Rise", The New York Times, 2 August 1987


  1. ^ "Timeline of tragedies during hajj pilgrimage in Mecca". The Guardian. 24 September 2015. Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Sivan, Emmanuel; Friedman, Menachem (29 August 1990). Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East. SUNY Press. ISBN 9780791401590.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Kifner, John (2 August 1987). "400 Die As Iranian Marchers Battle Saudi Police in Mecca; Embassies Smashed in Teheran – Gulf Tensions Rise – Angry Crowds Rampage at the Saudi, Kuwaiti and French Offices". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  4. ^ "Hajj: Major incidents". aljazeera. Retrieved 19 November 2009.
  5. ^ Barkan, Elazar; Barkey, Karen (11 November 2014). Choreographies of Shared Sacred Sites: Religion, Politics, and Conflict. Columbia University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780231538060.
  6. ^ "BBCPersian.com". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Matthiesen, Toby (22 December 2014). The Other Saudis. Cambridge University Press. p. 128. ISBN 9781107043046.
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ From Beirut to Jerusalem Thomas L. Friedman – 1990 – 541 pages – Snippet view
  10. ^ QrÄ mer, Martin S. (January 1996). Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival. Transaction Publishers. p. 164. ISBN 978-1-56000-272-7.
  11. ^ "Amid New Revelations, 1986 Hajj Terror Plot Must Finally be Fully Investigated".
  12. ^ Los Angeles Times (14 November 1986). "New Gang May Hold 3 Americans – Latest Kidnapping Could Mean Fury Against Secret Talks". orlandosentinel.[dead link]
  13. ^ Brecher, Michael; Wilkenfeld, Jonathan (1997). A Study of Crisis. University of Michigan Press. p. 656. ISBN 9780472108060.
  14. ^ a b K. McLachlan, Iran and the Continuing Crisis in the Persian Gulf. GeoJournal, Vol.28, Issue 3, Nov. 1992, p.359; also, "400 Die as Iranian Marchers Battle Saudi Police in Mecca; Embassies Smashed in Tehran", The New York Times, 8/2/87
  15. ^ "Saudis Report Broad Support for Mecca Policy : Envoy Says Heads of 40 Nations Hail Tough Stand Against Iranian Rioters". Los Angeles Times. 7 August 1987.
  16. ^ "Saudis Report Broad Support for Mecca Policy : Envoy Says Heads of 40 Nations Hail Tough Stand Against Iranian Rioters". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 October 2015.
  17. ^ In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade by Robin Wright, p166
  18. ^ Ayalon, Ami (25 September 1990). Middle East Contemporary Survey, Volume Xii, 1988. The Moshe Dayan Center. ISBN 9780813310442.
  19. ^ Rabinovich, Itamar; Shaked, Haim (1989). Middle East Contemporary Survey. The Moshe Dayan Center. p. 172. ISBN 9780813309255. All we ask is that the Saudi government not oppose this, nor send its guards to the Great Mosque. Let us see what happens. We will try it for one year.
  20. ^ SAHIMI, MUHAMMAD. "The power behind the scene: Khoeiniha". PBS. Retrieved 30 October 2009.
  21. ^ "Saudi-Iran war of words escalates over Hajj row". aljazeera. Retrieved 8 September 2016.
  22. ^ El-Anis, Imad H.; Underhill, Natasha (23 September 2016). Regional Integration and National Disintegration in the Post-Arab Spring. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781443896351.
  23. ^ "A spontaneous demonstration in Tehran on 1 August ended in attacks on the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies." The longest war: the Iran-Iraq military conflict, page 225
  24. ^ "Khomeini called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family to avenge the pilgrims' deaths" Saudi Arabia A Country Study, page 271
  25. ^ Kramer, Martin Seth (2011). "The Three-Year Boycott". Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East. Transaction Publishers. p. 176. ISBN 978-1412817394.
  26. ^ Kramer, Martin Seth (2011). "An Understanding Renewed?". Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East. Transaction Publishers. p. 178. ISBN 978-1412817394.
  27. ^ Christophe Jaffrelot (12 April 2016). Pakistan at the Crossroads: Domestic Dynamics and External Pressures. Columbia University Press. p. 307. ISBN 978-0-231-54025-4.
  28. ^ Kramer, Martin Seth (31 December 2011). Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East. Transaction Publishers. p. 162. ISBN 9781412817394.

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