This year as every year, Muslims from across the globe traveled to Mecca to perform the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. The pilgrimage has been carried out for centuries. Some change in ritual spaces and structures is an inevitable result of the passage of time and new rulership. But in recent years, scholars and analysts have become more critical of the building boom in Mecca. The Saudi government has implemented a flood of construction projects that are dramatically changing the holy city’s landscape.
The projects have destroyed heritage sites. The house of the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, is now 1,400 public toilets. The Mecca Hilton sits atop the site of the abode of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s companion.
Many projects have been elitist, too. The Grand Mosque, which contains the Kaaba—the sacred black structure toward which Muslims always pray—is now flanked by an enormous complex boasting a massive clock tower the size of six Big Bens. The compound houses a mall, a parking garage, and a luxury hotel, with the best rooms—facing the Kaaba, naturally—going for around $5,000 a night.
“The Saudis have turned Mecca into Disneyland,” Ziauddin Sardar, author of Mecca: The Sacred City,toldThe Telegraph, adding that the city is now an “eruption of architectural bling.”
Photographs by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater explore the changes in Mecca and come to a similar conclusion. Mater’s images show the rapid commercialization of holy sites. In one photo, “Nature Morte,” he captures the $5,000 Kaaba view from the luxury hotel’s interior.
In another, “Between Dream and Reality,” laborers sit in front of a construction site that has been hidden by a huge billboard depicting the Grand Mosque and Kaaba. “Is there a place for these people inside of this?” Ahmed Mater asked in an interview with Foreign Policy. “Is there a stake for them in this public space?”
There are reasons for the construction. The Saudi government has allowed more pilgrims to travel to Mecca each year, from around only 200,000 in the 1960s to two million or more today. At last year’s hajj, a deadly stampede killed more than 700 people; enlarging Mecca’s sites is needed. Saudi Arabia is also looking to diversify its economy so that it is not so dependent on oil revenue—particularly now, with oil prices so low. Proceeds from tourism can help.
Yet many of the latest projects, however strategic, continue to cater to a Mecca for the superrich. Another luxury hotel, called the Abraj Kudai, will open in 2017 or 2018 and is being billed as the world’s largest. The $3.5 billion complex will not only feature four- and five-star rooms, but also a wing for the Saudi royal family, four helipads, 70 restaurants, a ballroom, and, of course, shopping malls.
“[The] luxury hotels…are destroying the sanctity of the place and pricing normal pilgrims out,” Irfan Al-Alawai, the director of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, toldThe Guardian. “The city is turning into Mecca-hattan.”