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Mecca goes up-market, but commercialism unnerves some

Mecca goes up-market, but commercialism unnerves some

Luxury hotels are springing up in Mecca, as projects aim to accommodate more Muslims at Haj. But these big money developments are not necessarily welcome.

November 14, 2010 1:17 by

Sitting in the marble lobby of a luxury hotel in Mecca, Moroccan bank director Mohammad Hamdosh gets a breather from the cacophony of pilgrims bustling around the Grand Mosque in Islam’s holiest city.
Millions have flocked to the city in Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. But some can afford more than others, and a controversial construction boom is catering to their needs.

“Every pilgrim comes according to his means. God gave me money, so why shouldn’t I stay in this hotel?” says Hamdosh, on a trip that has cost him 12,000 Euros ($16,545). “Haj is tiring so it’s good to have a room to rest.”
Inside the mosque, all pilgrims are equal as they circle the black stone known as the Kaaba towards which Muslims around the world turn in prayer every day.

But outside an array of towering five-star hotels have sprung up where the wealthy can bask in a 24-hour view of the Kaaba. The high-rises dwarf the mosque and the surrounding town, nestled in the mountains in the hinterland of the port city Jeddah.
It is part of a wider project to expand the mosque and bring more Muslims to the holy city for salvation, according to the writs of Islam — something Saudi Arabia sees as its duty.

Mecca has just inaugurated the world’s largest clockface perched Big Ben-style on the front of a high-rise hotel facing the Kaaba, while some 20 cranes next to the mosque herald more luxury accommodation.

The spending spree in Mecca and the second holy city Medina is valued at some $120 billion over the next decade and at present there are $20 billion of projects underway in Mecca alone, according to Banque Saudi Fransi. A square metre land in Mecca costs some 50,000 riyals ($13,333).

“If people are in a good position they should stay close to the mosque,” said Farhad Yaftali, a 25-year-old pilgrim from a five-strong Afghani business family in Dubai who paid $15,000 each. “It’s good to have a room to rest and do wudu (ablution),” he said, sipping tea in the cafe of the same five-star hotel.

The Saudi government is proud of the development, made possible by the country’s vast wealth accrued from its oil resources. The work is the latest stage in mosque expansions to accommodate pilgrims that stretch back decades.

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