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Choking Mecca in the Name of Beauty — and Development (Part 2)

[Open quarters at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, across from Jabal Shamiyya Construction project. Image from author's archive] [Open quarters at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, across from Jabal Shamiyya Construction project. Image from author's archive]

Mecca During the Hajj 

As the annual hajj draws to a close, millions of Muslim pilgrims in Mecca celebrate the four-day Eid al Adha together ritually, festively, and with a jubilant spirit of giving. They will pray, eat, and spend time with loved ones. Those who can afford it will give alms to the less fortunate. Most will resist the temptations of sleep in order to enjoy every remaining hour they have in the holiest of all Muslim places. Thousands of medical doctors and nurses flown in from the world over to run the temporary hospitals, clinics, and medical facilities for the month of hajj will begin returning to their everyday jobs. An even larger number of Asian butchers, intoxicated by the pungent stench of animal blood, will close down the seasonal slaughterhouses, leaving scores of cows and sheep that were sacrificed in vein to decompose in the scorching Mecca heat. Hundreds of military and undercover servicemen will report back to their bases, more relieved than their government that they were spared the consequences of any kind of attack, terrorist or otherwise. The sectarian tension that animates the pilgrims’ different religious rituals and practices will be suppressed, the non-Sunni (and non-Saudi) variant belittled and dismissed. Prices of goods and services will deflate to their pre-hajj rates. And Mecca, exhausted from tending to the daily needs of her three million devoted lovers, will ease back into her daily rhythm of unattended pedestrian and vehicular traffic; overwhelming noise and air pollution; unregulated demolitions of residential homes, mountains, and archeological sites; and multi-billion dollar construction projects designed to herald this old city into the 21st century (see part I of this post).

Today, this year’s three million foreign pilgrims will return to their countries of residence without having experienced Mecca as a living city. Once home, they will gather around family, friends, and neighbors and proudly narrate their once-in-a-lifetime journey to Umm al Qura, the mother of all cities. They will remain, as with pilgrims of years past, oblivious to the thousands of Meccans who have been displaced from their centuries-old homes; to the hundreds of landowners who have been stripped of ownership rights with minimal or no compensation (contrary to government claims); to the destruction of the material life of the religion whose tenets they have flown thousands of miles to fulfill. They will remain blind, and silent, to the violence being done to Mecca and its residents in the name of their comfort and safety, in a hyper-capitalist, “War on Terror” Saudi Arabia. But I should not be quick to judge. After all, the majority of Muslims who perform hajj do so only once in their lifetime, during which they give their undivided attention to religious rituals. Few can afford to go to Mecca more than once, with the average price of a 6-day hajj package from Indonesia starting at $3500, or $5500 for those hailing from the United States. Pilgrims who do return rightly experience many of the tangible changes in positive light. The Mecca of the new millennium is a stranger to that of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, even pilgrims who do not frequent the five-star hotels that hug the Grand Mosque have easy access to clean and safe bathrooms. The prayer areas in the Grand Mosque have been expanded more than threefold in the last two decades. Rates of infectious disease and hajj-related casualties have dropped drastically. And modes of transportation, while increasingly more expensive, are slowly but steadily improving and catering to the growing numbers of pilgrims. The Mecca that the pilgrims do (and should) experience is one that is safer, easier to travel to, and more comfortable for religious visitors and tourists. But are these much-needed basic accommodations too much to expect from the world’s largest oil exporting country? Does improving sanitation, transportation, safety measures, and prayer space- what the Saudi government deems necessary for a better hajj experience- truly require the demolitions and hyper-luxurious development projects sanctioned by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques? 

The answers to these questions are not self-evident. Rapid urban development and the race towards taller, bigger, more fantastical, metal and glass buildings have become unremarkable global architectural phenomena. Whether in Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, Tehran, or Egypt- all major pilgrim-source countries- such development trends are largely seen as an embodied vision of a modern, and hence forward-looking future. But this level of haphazard destruction and redevelopment taking place in the holy city of Mecca, and the attendant changing forms of modern religious experience, should give us pause. It should force us to imagine the social, political, and historical consequences of a Mecca without historical artifacts that date back to the time of the prophet Mohammad and his successors. In other words, a Mecca that- outside the Grand Mosque- does not have an Islamic material heritage. It is the power of petro-capital that allows government-allied contractor companies to change the topographic nature of Mecca, despite the fact that it is not religiously sanctioned to cut a tree on its now-desecrated soil. As it is articulated here, petro-capital reveals itself to be especially spectacular, destructive, and exploitative. This articulation provides a seductive platform from which to critique the religio-political alliance that brought the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into existence in the early 20th century, one that in many ways continues to sustain it. But in this post I am interested in the many realities that petro-capital forecloses, whether in terms of lives and livelihoods; pasts and possible futures; and especially, the vibrant voices of protestation that are silenced on a daily basis.   


Views from the Saudi Edge

Not everyone considers the glamour, glitter, and simplicity of modern architecture an embodiment of progress. Indeed, a few pilgrims from Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia have gone back to their home countries and criticized the alienating developments they had witnessed during their stay in Mecca. But by and large, the most invested critics of Mecca’s makeover were (and still are) Saudi citizens: writers, academics, architects, historians, religious scholars, and archeologists. The latter group, in turn, can be divided into two categories: 1) citizens of, or from, the Hijaz region, with strong ties to either Mecca or Medina; and 2) citizens from the Eastern Province. Critical Saudi voices from the central region of Najd, where the capital is located, are missing.[1] Most Najdi colleagues and friends I have spoken to are not attuned to the alarming changes taking place in Mecca. Many of them have not performed hajj or ‘umra for over a decade and have not visited Mecca since. Those who have believe, like many of their compatriots, that the end result of development work in Mecca is for the greater good, regardless of any “collateral damage.” The implicit assumption here is that even if the Saudi government makes mistakes and is driven by capital gains, it would ensure all development projects in Mecca and Medina are carefully and conscientiously planned and implemented. In any case, to the best of my knowledge, no Najdi voice has publicly criticized the government’s urban redevelopment plans in Mecca.  

In this post, I will focus on the critics who fall under the first category, those who are originally from the Hijaz and/or have strong ties to Mecca and with whom I am mostly familiar.[2] Their criticism of the government’s negligent and profit-oriented policies in Mecca dates back to the days of the late King Fahd, who commissioned the largest ever expansion of the Grand Mosque. But their voices have grown increasingly louder in the last eight years as rumors of the complete overhaul of Mecca started to materialize when demolition and construction works began on the southwestern front facing the Grand Mosque. As news of the Saudi Binladen Group’s (SBG) development plans reached the public, some of the critics arranged awareness and strategic planning meetings with Meccan land and business owners, scholars, and residents. Their numerous attempts at speaking with figures of authority at the SBG and the Mecca Municipality were ignored. The contractors conducted business as usual, ignoring residents’ calls for an explanation. 

Some critics began to voice their tempered opinions in Saudi newspapers (all of which are state-owned and censored), most notably in Al-Riyadh and Al-Madina. Others hosted weekly or monthly lectures and meetings in their homes, some of which were open to the public while others were not. They would discuss the latest developments and any new information they managed to obtain in order to paint a clearer picture of the holy city’s future. Several people managed to video document the whole city, filming every neighborhood, historical and archeological site, cemetery, and other places of interest, before, during, and after demolition or construction. Still others collected oral history interviews with Mecca’s old residents and citizens to preserve the city’s history. Some of these can be found online upon a detailed Arabic search. The majority of these dissenters wrote official complaint letters to high-ranking members of the ruling family. As mentioned in part I of this post, several offered comprehensive urban redevelopment plans for Mecca, ones that would truly accommodate all pilgrims’ needs, while respecting Mecca, its residents, and its environment. Their plans, however, were shelved.[3] Until last year, when this opposition group came under the government’s continuous radar, several small, silent protests were reported at targeted construction sites in Mecca. At first the protesters were ignored. Soon enough, as their numbers grew, they were peacefully forced to disperse by Mecca’s police and private security hired by the construction companies. While all critics have received warnings, they have suffered different fates depending on how publicized their criticism has been and how well connected they are. Some have had their passports rescinded and are banned from traveling for an indefinite period of time. Others were banned from writing in local newspapers- partially, on anything related to development plans in Mecca/Medina, or completely, on any topic. The latter were banned from publishing in all print media, and from teaching at schools and universities. And the government and its allies attempt to discredit them all by labeling them heretics, rendering their “behavior” an effect of their Sufism, Shi’ism, or simply, their untrue Sunnism. In all cases, they are branded threats to national and societal security and completely isolated. 

Capitalist interests almost always prevail, but these critics continue to make their voices heard in one way or another. Evidence to that is the government’s increasing announcements on matters that pertain to the futures of Mecca and Medina. In many ways, Prince Khalid Al Faisal was appointed governor of the Mecca Province because he was regarded as someone who would know exactly how to deal with these abovementioned challenges. In early 2009, less than two years into his appointment, Prince Khalid attempted to ease the growing tension in the holy city by including Meccans in the decision-making process. He encouraged the people of Mecca to voice any concerns, complaints, or commendations, anonymously, via a special online page on the Al-Madina newspaper. He announced that the page would be open to the public for one month, and promised that he would incorporate their comments into the new urban policies he sought for Mecca. While it is not clear if the Prince actually incorporated the comments, let alone read them, this, along with increasing government justifications of what is going on in Mecca, indicates the level of visibility that these critiques have attained. The latter are also evident in the increasing number of articles on Mecca’s urban redevelopment in local newspapers and blogs. Perhaps this is just the natural progression of things, as urban plans materialize into giant architectural disasters that encroach on people’s spaces and everyday lives. Either way, it is now going to take much more government effort and capital to show that these development projects are not profit-driven, that they are actually being done for the “comfort and safety” of pilgrims, a refrain I have heard several times over the last week alone. In the end, Mecca’s newest landmark, the “Muslim Big Ben,” a clock adorned with the gold crescent, the Saudi coat of arms at the center, and “God is Greatest” in Arabic calligraphy on top, is illustrative of all the spectacular development projects that will choke Mecca’s Grand Mosque. As friends keep pointing out, the $800 million clock, which local and international media have been raving about since one of its four faces was put into work during Ramadan, is the symbol of petro-capitalism par excellence.


[1] So are critical voices from the northern and southern border regions of the Kingdom, two frontiers that are almost completely ignored by the government and by other Saudis.

[2] I will not provide references or links to any of these critics’ websites, articles, journals, and photos in an attempt to protect their identities and keep their important avenues of protestation under the Saudi censors’ radar.

[3] The government- in a move that reifies the “foreigner-complex” so prevalent in the Gulf- is only now commissioning foreign, largely Western companies to draw up an urban plan for Mecca. By the time the plans are ready and approved, many of the construction projects will be almost completed and it will be too late to bring about any serious change, at least in Central Mecca. 


4 comments for " Choking Mecca in the Name of Beauty — and Development (Part 2) "


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