LONDON — A 130-foot (40 meters), Big Ben-style clock face atop the world's second-tallest building. Malls crammed with thousands of shops, including a Paris Hilton accessory store, and a new metro system in the works.
Skyscrapers, super-luxury hotels, and other enormous development projects are transforming Mecca, Saudi Arabia, prompting an outcry from critics who claim the changes are detracting from the character of Islam's holiest city. Defenders of the multi-billion dollar effort argue it is necessary to accommodate the rush of visiting pilgrims.
The undertaking is massive. Ancient structures connected to the Prophet Muhammad have been razed and hills surrounding the city have been flattened. The Grand Mosque itself is being expanded by 4.3 million square feet (3.9 million square meters), allowing it to accommodate two million people.
Largely financed by the oil-rich Saudi government, the massive real estate overhaul is attracting large investors, who see the potential to reap solid profits.
"Islam has nothing against making money," said Chiheb Ben Mahmoud, a vice president and head of hotel strategy in the Dubai office of Jones Lang Lasalle, the international real estate firm. "And there is a lot of money to be made from investing in Mecca, definitely."
An estimated three million people descend on Mecca at once during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Over the course of a year, some 12 million visit, pumping $30 billion into the economy. For centuries, wealthy Persian Gulf families prided themselves on holding properties that could accommodate visitors to the holy city; "a blessed and safe investment," Ben Mahmoud said
Today, shares in Sharia-compliant funds supporting the development of real estate projects in and around Mecca are promoted on international markets. "It's seen as an ethical investment, an investment with a purpose," Mr. Ben Mahmoud points out.
The build-up in Mecca, proponents say, is badly needed to accommodate visitors to the city – many of whom have more money and higher standards than visitors in the past. For years, tour operators placed most pilgrims in sparse, barely furnished apartments. Now visitors, particularly those from wealthy Gulf nations, expect more.
"Many people used to go to Mecca by bus, now they fly and when they reach their destination their demands are high — they want to have an elevator that is working; they want to have a minimum of service, and clean rooms, and
AC," explains Ben Mahmoud.
"By having these new hotels, investors made the bet that large portions of the market need service hospitality, conventional hospitality, which is more in line with the times."
Critics say the lavish scale and style of new building shows little respect for the sacred nature of the city, which Muslims around the world face when they pray.
Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, a group based in Britain and Saudi Arabia that campaigns to preserve historic sites in the kingdom, says the construction is damaging the city's religious essence. "Ninety-nine percent of Mecca has gone," he said. "My fear is that the spiritual aspects of being a Muslim and visiting the holy city are disappearing."
The 2,000-foot high Royal Mecca Clock Tower — whose clock face resembles London's Big Ben, but on a vastly larger scale, and shines with a greenish light — has been a particular focus of criticism. The New York Times called it "an architectural absurdity" and slammed the city's redevelopment as "gargantuan and gaudy."
The tower, which includes a 20-story shopping mall, luxury hotel, and a heliport, overlooks the Grand Mosque. It is part of the massive Abraj al-Bait complex built by the Saudi Binladin Group for an estimated $15 billion.
Nearby is the $5.3 billion , scheduled to open next year. It will eventually include 38 towers, containing 13,500 hotel rooms and four thousand shops.
In August, the Saudi government approved plans for a $16.5 billion metro system in the city, and international firms, including Germany's Siemens and Canada's Bombardier, are bidding for the work. A high-speed train line linking Mecca and Medina, another holy city, is scheduled to begin operation in 2014.
Debates over the scale and style of the construction are likely to continue, but Jones Lang Lasalle's Ben Mahmoud says the pressures driving the building spree are not diminishing.
"The Muslim population across the world is increasing, and there are more and more people who would like to go to Mecca," he said. "There is a need for modern structures."
Photo courtesy of: Abraj-al-Bait (Creative Commons); Saif Alnuweiri (Flickr);
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism
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