The 1990 Gulf War was a watershed in the history of the modern Middle East, one that altered the political economies of the region as well as state-society relations therein. In Saudi Arabia, the anti-regime popular mobilizations that had emerged during the war, coupled with the post-war global economic recession, shaped the ways in which the ruling Al Saud monarchy managed its monopoly on power and economic resources. On the one hand, the rulers adopted multi-pronged strategies of coercion and cooptation to pacify oppositional movements. On the other hand, they relied on land speculation, and the development of real estate schemes in particular, as new modes of political legitimation and capital generation, given the narrowing of global investment opportunities. Specifically, the post-war property regime targeted Mecca and Riyadh as objects of urban redevelopment through which new visions of the Saudi modern manifested and circulated, thereby assuming a central role in both economic and political life.
Late twentieth-century centralized city planning, however, took on different forms in the country’s religious and political capitals, respectively. In Mecca, site of the yearly Muslim pilgrimage, urban redevelopment plans centered on the complete overhaul of the city’s physical, cultural, social, and economic landscape. The attendant multi-billion dollar mega projects have been replacing historical sites, cultural landmarks, and private properties in the neighborhoods circling Mecca’s Grand Mosque [al-masjid al-haram]. Petro-resources, circulated through Saudi Arabian banks in the form of loans to contractors and Mecca’s real estate market, will turn Central Mecca into a constellation of mixed-use developments comprising upscale international hotels and short-term and permanent residences, as well as state-of-the-art commercial facilities and markets. The future of this area will thereby be completely severed from its intellectually, socially, and economically rich past.
The Saudi regime has marketed the remaking of Mecca as necessary to enhance the infrastructure of the pilgrimage in order to accommodate a ballooning Muslim population in a now easily accessible city that has more to offer than its historical and religious material heritage. Accordingly, the aim of the construction (and destruction) is to bring the religious capital into the twenty-first century and to turn it into a model global city for development and modernization. In the words of Mecca’s governor Khalid ibn Faisal Al Saud, modernization is meant to transform Mecca into the most beautiful “First World” city. The lucrative construction projects have in reality also changed the religious experience of the modern pilgrimage, along with other Islamic rituals. They have, for one, increased class inequalities and created “gated communities” where rich worshippers can separate themselves from the crowds. Effectively, people who can afford the four-to-five million-dollar apartments or pay upward of three thousand dollars per night for a hotel room do not have to hear, smell, touch, or be near other pilgrims. They can pray in group [jama‘a] from the luxury of their homes or hotel rooms, a practice sanctioned by former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah ibn Baz in 1998. This separation defeats the purpose of the pilgrimage and the sense of spiritual communion it is meant to generate as well as the erosion, if only temporarily, of boundaries (national and class) that it customarily enforces, represented in the humble, white robe that pilgrims wear. In addition to creating class inequities and distinctions among pilgrims, these mega projects have thus far forced a hundred thousand residents of Central Mecca from different socioeconomic classes out of their homes. The former residents have received meager compensation in return and are without legal recourse. Some have ended up in slums less than a mile away from the Grand Mosque, hidden from visitors’ eyes by the Abraj al-Bayt Towers and other large-scale developments.
While the first wave of destruction at such a massive scale in Central Mecca began in the late-1990s, it was only in the last few years, mostly since 2011, that the mass media paid these phenomena any attention. In the near absence of scholarly works that account for, or theorize, Mecca’s urban transformations, the media reasoned that Wahhabi iconoclasm, rooted in literal interpretations of the Quran and the prophetic traditions, was behind the state’s drive for urban destruction. While practices of memorialization counter official Wahhabi beliefs, seeing them as a mediated form of worship and an association with God and equating all such actions with polytheism, the Saudi regime has, since 1928, managed the iconoclastic desires of religious zealots, using these for political purposes when necessary. The Shi‘i shrines of Najaf and Karbala’ as well as Sufi houses of worship in the Hijaz, for instance, constituted prime idolatrous targets, which the Wahhabis attacked beginning in the eighteenth century. Historically, however, such acts of destruction were equally motivated by economic and territorial conquest. Accordingly, the religious establishment took up places of religious importance as sites of material and discursive contestation against those they considered non-Orthodox Sunni Muslims—a flexible term that was used for those who opposed Al Saud’s political project.
Blaming religious zeal for such mundane global urban phenomena that are part and parcel of capitalist development and the reorganization of modern power misses the forest for the trees. Such facile explanations that can only see the Middle East through the lens of religion reproduce images of Saudi Arabia as retrograde and frozen in a bygone time instead of revealing the political and economic reasoning behind Mecca’s redevelopment projects. Indeed, to create new opportunities for capital reproduction and accumulation amid the globally driven post-Gulf War economic crisis, the regime transformed the Saudi landscape into a rent-generating asset through developing the real estate and tourism sectors of the economy. Local property speculation, generally insulated from the declining global real estate market, thus became part and parcel of petro-capitalism, a “spatial fix” (David Harvey, 2001) for a petro-regime dealing with its worst crisis of legitimation amid fluctuating oil revenue streams and constricting investment opportunities. While development projects in Mecca turned the regime’s enormous amounts of surplus petro-capital into a regular source of rent and bolstered the importance of real estate development to economic life, they also tied the economic elites to the regime’s political and economic longevity, consolidating the power of the ruling family and its economic allies. The lucrative construction projects therefore further entrenched the economic elites and capitalist classes within the fledgling property regime’s fold, bolstering its longevity in the face of increasing popular dissent.
The destruction of one form of historical memory in Mecca, which Wahhabi iconoclasm nonetheless supports, has been critical for the consolidation of Saudi political authority. It has also been complemented by the creation and memorialization of an official, secular history in Riyadh based on Al Saud’s past, a process that has received scant attention in both journalistic and scholarly analyses. The property regime’s multibillion-dollar reinvigoration of the capital’s urban and cultural plans, the remaking of historic Riyadh, and the creation of a heritage industry therein, was driven by the rulers’ concern with how the built environment had changed social relations and engendered a loss of what they understood to be traditional Saudi identity and culture. They attributed such a perceived loss of identity to have caused popular dissent during the Gulf War. As such, multiple large scale projects, such as the Dir‘iyya Redevelopment Program, the King Abdulaziz Historical Center, the redevelopment of historic Riyadh, the multiple architectural monuments that have emerged in the city, and various archeological sites and cultural redevelopment plans, have aimed to solidify a sense of Saudi identity rooted in allegiance to Al Saud’s monarchy.
Ironically, the Wahhabi establishment has been a central partner in the move towards materializing and territorializing official Saudi history. In my broader work, I further explore this dissonance through a genealogical reading of the material and spatial politics that have been central to Saudi petro-modernity, social engineering, and economic diversification. I show how Mecca and Riyadh constitute sites where multiple, simultaneous projects are taking place. They present a point of intersection of manifold forces of economy, society, culture and ideology. The two cities are sites where different social orders, time, and densities exist in the same social space and for different ideological goals. The redevelopment of both cities, and the contradictions therein, are central to practices of statecraft and techniques of governance. The erasure of alternative accounts of state formation through commemoration in Riyadh and destruction in Mecca is, at heart, a continuation of Al Saud’s imperial project and the deep-seated violence to the everyday, the spiritual, and the temporal.
[This article was first published in print in the Cairo Observer in April 2015.]