MECCA, Saudi Arabia — Billboards line the Umm Al Qura highway leading to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, showing the picturesque landscape, glass-fronted shops and ornate towers. It is part of a $26 billion project to bring more Muslims to the holy city’s luxury hotels, apartments, shops and restaurants.
As this year’s Hajj ends on Friday, bringing the annual pilgrimage to close to its pre-pandemic peak, Mecca is being pushed to its peak. The economic reform plan aims to bring in more than 30 million tourists a year by 2030, and for tourism to contribute $80 billion, or 10% of GDP, if the kingdom reduces its dependence on oil.
Muslims around the world should make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives if they can afford it. Millions more come for Umrah, a limited pilgrimage that can be performed at any time during the year. Together, Hajj and Umrah attracted 20 million pilgrims in 2019, before the pandemic.
Neighbors Dubai and Qatar can’t compete with this, despite hosting international events and major sporting events.
Tourism currently contributes 4.45% to Saudi Arabia’s GDP. Although there are no official figures on how much money the Hajj earns, it is estimated to be more than $12 billion.
“Saudi Arabia should not worry about foreign competition, because there is only one Mecca and one Medina,” said Bahraini economist Omar Al-Ubaydli. “This is a good base for making good money. Helping people shop, go to museums, go to meetings while doing Umrah is a good way to make money.”
For more than a decade, angry development has changed between Mecca and the fields of towers surrounding the Grand Mosque, the house of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. Facing the main entrance of the mosque is the landmark, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, the fourth tallest building in the world. Makkah is another way of explaining the name of the city.
Hotels within walking distance or view of the Grand Mosque charge eye-watering prices during Hajj and Ramadan. The best location has already been taken by the Pullman, Raffles, and other luxury hotels.
So companies are looking at the areas northwest and northeast of the Grand Mosque. And Umm Al Qura Road has matured in development.
Behind the bright billboards on the side of the main road are the license plates of cranes, craters and piles of gray waste from the construction of the over 26 billion Masar Makkah development project. The plan is to put a 3.5-kilometer (2 mile) stretch of hotels, apartments, parks and major parks around the Grand Mosque area. Local media say the company leading the project demolished thousands of homes and paid more than $2.9 billion in compensation to their residents over five years.
On the other side are low-quality and boring lodgings, food stalls, and small shops with essentials for pilgrimage – a world far from the bright and prosperous future of Mecca that Saudi Arabia envisions. Many pilgrims, especially those from poor countries, live by the side of the road. The call improves as you approach the Grand Mosque.
The Associated Press reached out to several Saudi officials and construction companies with detailed questions about religious tourism and plans to develop the hospitality sector in Mecca, but they did not respond.
At a press conference this week in Mecca, the spokesman for the Ministry of Hajj, Ayedh al-Ghweinim, spoke about the work being done, saying that the government is “always willing to expand the Hajj and Umrah events and improve the services provided.” He said the development continues “to match the number” of tourists from abroad and “provide a unique experience.”
Twenty-seven projects, each valued at $25 million or more, are underway in Mecca, according to the Global Data Construction Intelligence Center. Of these, 13 are in the hospitality, retail and accommodation sectors, and the rest are in the transport sector.
Other multibillion-dollar tower block projects, such as Jabal Omar and Thakher Makkah, speak of “living, inclusive communities” and “sustainable spiritual life.”
Attempts to combine religious traditions with innovation require careful attention from Saudi Arabia’s leadership, as well as from the manufacturers and companies involved. The city of Mecca is revered by Muslims around the world as the place where the Prophet Muhammad was born and preached 1,400 years ago. Anything that they see as destroying the sanctity of the holy place, even if they don’t know, would upset the faithful.
At the same time, the leadership of Saudi Arabia wants to emphasize the modern, new Mecca by showing new constructions and projects that are planned. At the 24-hour Starbucks next to the Grand Mosque, a $25 jute shoulder bag shows the tower and the neighboring neighborhood next to the coffee sign. Branding for Vision 2030, the economic differentiation program, is everywhere.
Residents of Mecca have mixed feelings about the city’s remarkable transformation.
“It’s not the Mecca we know,” said Fajr Abdullah Abdul-Halim, 57, who was born and raised in the city but now lives in Jeddah. His family lived near the Grand Mosque. Now both houses are finished. “In the past, there were areas near the Grand Mosque, but now it’s a tower and through.”
Ancient areas such as Ajyad, Sad, Jarwal and Shweika, have been renovated to accommodate the increasing religious tourism.
Abdul-Halim said that although the community wants to live in the city, the construction project has pushed them out. “People say it’s better to move to get a better education and work.”
An Egyptian chef who has worked in Mecca for six years is happy with the development and the prospect of wealthy tourists as it means more business for his restaurants. But he admits it comes at a price, with low-wage workers from Bangladesh and Myanmar suffering the most because they get prices from many places.
Demolition of many areas has redefined other parts of the city.
Misfalah, south of the Grand Mosque, was the chef’s favorite place to visit as it was home to his favorite restaurant in Africa. It went with the holes, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals in a country where any criticism of the government can lead to trouble.
An Egyptian, who has lived in Mecca for more than ten years and spoke anonymously for the same reason, is accepting construction and development work nearby because of its positive effects on the economy. The money has led to new restaurants, hotels, shops and better infrastructure. He has been paid handsomely to work in all cities.
But he worries that the luxury hotels could be a distraction to the Mecca-like religion. “Perhaps when people come they will forget about the Kaaba… and focus more on buildings and highways,” he said.
Jeffery reported from Cairo.
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