After 107 pilgrims were killed, and almost 400 left injured, following the crane collapse in Masjid-Al-Haram on Friday, the Saudi regime reacted exactly as it would to any other problem faced by the kingdom: throwing petrodollars at it. 1 million riyals per person was announced by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud for those who were killed or injured with permanent disability. The construction firm Binladin Group, owned by the family of Osama bin Laden, was sanctioned by the Saudis over the crane crash as the sole manifestation of accountability.

This isn’t the first time pilgrims have been killed during the Hajj rituals. Stampedes alone have killed thousands over the past couple of decades. 1,426 died in 1990 in the Al-Ma’aisim stampede, while 118 were killed in 1998’s Jamarat stampede. The stoning ritual has historically witnessed the most casualties – the bloodiest years being 1994 (270), 2004 (251) and 2006 (346). Pilgrims have died in fire incidents as well, with 343 dying in the tragic ‘Makkah fire of 1997’ when tents were set ablaze.

The tents have since been made fireproof. And considering that the Saudis only address a fatal flaw in their management of Hajj rituals, in the aftermath of high-profile tragedies and the ensuing striking death counts, one would hope that the ‘Khadimain Harmain Sharifain’ (Custodians of the Holy Mosques) might realise that refusing to suspend construction work in the buildup to the Hajj, was murderous laxity on the ‘custodians’ part. One would, however, hope in vain.

The Saudi kings self-bestowed the Khadimain Harmain Sharifain title in 1986, when King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al Saud proclaimed himself as such. Every Saudi king has been officially addressed as the ‘Custodian of the Holy Mosques’ since then.

The paradox in Saudi claims self-manifested when the year after their ‘custodianship’ became official, the 1987 massacre happened. 402 people died, including 275 Iranian pilgrims when Saudi security forces clashed with Shia pilgrims. The then Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini, called for Iranian pilgrims to boycott the pilgrimage for several years as Saudi-Iranian ties reached their nadir. Ayatollah Javadi Amoli has called for the “emancipation” of the Holy Sites from Saudi control following the Makkah crane collapse.

It is a shame that the only real challenge to Saudi custodianship of the Holy Sites is coming from a similarly despotic regime, and is more geopolitical than based on principle.

95% of Makkah’s millennium-old buildings have been destroyed over the past two decades, in the now well-documented Saudi vandalism of Muslim heritage and Islamic sites. For a regime that decides which of the over 1.6 billion Muslims can visit the kingdom for pilgrimage, its monolithic destruction of Islamic history and culture highlights barefaced callousness to the religious affiliation of all the Muslims that do not adhere to its Wahabbi, vandalistic Islam.

The sole claim to Saudi custodianship over the Holy Mosques can be traced to 1744 when the Emirate of Diriyah was established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the founding father of Wahabbism) and Prince Muhammad bin Saud (the founder of the Saud family named after his father Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin). The First Saudi state of 1744 laid the foundation for Saudi regime that engulfed Karbala and Najaf by early 19th century. Saudi credentials for ‘custodianship’ is 18th century usurpation of the Holy Mosques.

The over two centuries of Saudi vandalism of Makkah and Madina began in 1804 when the Saudis demolished the tombs of Fatimah, the youngest daughter of the Prophet, and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, his first wife.

Again, as mentioned above, the sole challenge to the Saudi hegemony over Muslim heritage has come from another regime that would want to replace a primitive form of Sunni Islam with an antediluvian version of Shia Islam, which is similarly narrow, and intolerant.

Contrast this with the election – not self-appointment – of the Pope of the Catholic Church, which despite far from being ideal as far as modern day eligibility criteria go, is significantly more progressive and inclusive than the selection of the Holy Mosques’ custodianship. On paper, any Catholic man that fits the piety chart set out in the Code of Canon Law can be the Pope, a designation that, unlike the Saudi ‘custodians’, can be traced all the way back to primacy of the Roman bishop. Not to mention the fact that the creation of Vatican City – the sovereign territory of the Holy See – ensured that Catholicism in the 20th century, and beyond, doesn’t intermingle with geopolitics.

Can the perpetually dormant Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) mull something similar for custodianship of Holy Islamic sites in the Arabian Peninsula, to ensure equal representation and say of Muslims from around the world? Of course not.

A Saudi kingdom without the two holy cities would be just another Arab country for global powers and other Muslim countries. Its strategic relevance would thence be limited to the number of oil barrels it can churn out, something that is already under threat by the ante being upped on Shale production the world over.

This is precisely why the Saudis couldn’t halt, or ease, construction in Masjid-al-Haram. Because they’re facing a race against time to maintain their geopolitical relevance for the likes of US. The Abraj Kudai, which is being constructed next to Masjid-al-Haram, is touted as the ‘world’s biggest hotel’. It will be completed in 2017, the year when US is predicted to overtake Saudi Arabian oil production.

As one half of their economic superstructures is threatened by global oil firms, the Saudi rush to complete their construction manoeuvres stems from the need to secure the other half: religious tourism. As its share in the global oil market decreases in the coming years, the acquiescence of the global powers to its human rights abuses, and proliferation of Islamist extremism, would drop in tandem. This would result in the ideological challenge to Saudi custodianship of Islam being more conspicuous. The Saudis want to make sure their radical neoliberal model of capitalism is in place in time to replace Wahabbism as their hegemonic cornerstone.