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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

“In the past 10 years, we’ve seen a big rise in pilgrims. This year the number of pilgrims will rise by 20 percent,” Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz told a news conference in Mecca this week.
“Work to further improve the level of services to pilgrims of the House of God is continuing,” he said. Hoteliers say they expect more than three million pilgrims, maybe even four.


Many Saudi intellectuals, mainly from the Mecca region, are disturbed by the government’s plans, which diplomats in Riyadh say have been approved only by senior clerics away from public scrutiny.

Saudi newspapers and Islamist blogs have engaged in some debate about the building frenzy, but no criticism comes from the top Saudi scholars who are allies to the Saudi royal family in governing the kingdom — which has no elected parliament.

“One cannot help but feel sad seeing al-Kaaba so dot-small between all those glass and iron giants,” said novelist Raja Alem, whose recent novel Tawq al-Hamam (The Doves Necklace) exposes destruction of historic areas, corruption and abuse.

“Long before Islam, Arabs didn’t dare live in the circle of what we call ‘al-haram’, meaning the sacred area (of the mosque),” she said. “They spent their days in the holy city and moved out with nightfall. They thought their human activities defile God’s home.”
The rites of pilgrimage reinforce this sense of humility before God. Men wear two simple pieces of white cloth and women avoid perfumes.

Hoteliers say the government bans some displays of luxury such as swimming pools — yet the new Makkah Clock Royal Tower Hotel will boast two top-notch spas (

“The notion of filling Mecca’s sky line with modern skyscrapers is not only undermining the Kaaba, it is a clear material symbol of a massive cultural and social deletion the city has experienced,” said Saudi columnist Mahmoud Sabbagh.

“The replacement of the old city has taken with it centuries-long preserved traditions in academic, social, and cultural systems and mechanisms. The whole cultural paradigm has been damaged,” he said.

In recent decades many old houses have been torn down in Mecca to allow better access to the haram, making way for malls, hotels and huge underground parking areas. Locals are compensated for houses they lose.
Irfan al-Alawi, an Islamic theology professor based in London, said the Vatican would never sanction such work in its own sacred precinct.

The government should use space outside the city to build hotels, he said: “Mecca doesn’t have to look like Manhattan or New York”.
(By Ulf Laessing. Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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