By RIAZAT BUTT and JACK JEFFERY
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Billboards line the Umm Al Qura highway leading to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, displaying manicured public spaces, glass-fronted stores and sleek towers. It’s part of a $26 billion project to bring more Muslims to the holy city’s high-end hotels, residences, retailers and restaurants.
As this year’s Hajj wraps up Friday, bringing the annual pilgrimage closer to its pre-pandemic size, Mecca is being rapidly pushed to an even grander scale. An ambitious plan to reshape the economy aims to bring in more than 30 million religious tourists a year by 2030, and for tourism to contribute up to $80 billion, or 10% of GDP, as the kingdom reduces its reliance on oil.
The government is homing in on religious tourism because the demand already exists. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.
Muslims around the world are required by their faith to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives if they are able. Millions more come for the Umrah, a lesser pilgrimage that can be done any time during the year. Together, the Hajj and Umrah drew some 20 million pilgrims in 2019, before the pandemic.
Neighboring Dubai and Qatar can never compete with this offering, even as they host global events and major sporting competitions.
Tourism currently contributes 4.45% to Saudi Arabia’s GDP. Although there are no official figures on how much revenue the Hajj generates, it is considered to be upward of $12 billion.
“Saudi Arabia never has to worry about foreign competition, as there is only one Mecca and only one Medina,” said Bahrain-based economist Omar Al-Ubaydli. “This is a great foundation for building a successful income source. Enabling people to shop, visit museums, attend conferences while performing Umrah is a great strategy for income growth.”
For more than a decade, furious development has transformed the center of Mecca with fields of towers surrounding around the Grand Mosque, housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. Facing the mosque’s main entrance is the centerpiece, the monumental Makkah Royal Clock Tower, the fourth tallest building in the world. Makkah is an alternative spelling of the city’s name.
Hotels within walking distance or a view of the Grand Mosque charge eye-watering amounts during the Hajj and Ramadan seasons. The best spots are already taken by a Pullman, a Raffles, and other luxury hotels.
So companies are targeting areas northwest and northeast of the Grand Mosque. And Umm Al Qura Road is ripe for development.
Behind the bright billboards along the highway are a jumble of cranes, craters and piles of grey rubble in the ongoing construction of the $26 billion Masar Makkah development project. The plan is to lay down a 3.5-kilometer-long (2-mile) swath of hotels, residential buildings, parks and malls leading up to the Grand Mosque area. Local media report that the company leading the project demolished thousands of homes and paid out more than $2.9 billion in compensation to their residents over a period of five years.
On the other side are low-rise and dingy pilgrim lodgings, budget eateries, and tiny stores crammed with pilgrimage essentials — a world away from the shiny and upscale future for Mecca envisioned by Saudi Arabia. Scores of pilgrims, mostly from developing countries, sit on the sidewalks. The curb appeal improves the closer you get to the Grand Mosque.
The Associated Press reached out to several Saudi officials and construction firms with detailed questions about religious tourism and plans to develop Mecca’s hospitality sector but received no response.
At a press conference this week in Mecca, Hajj Ministry spokesman Ayedh al-Ghweinim spoke about the work taking place, saying the government “is always keen to develop the Hajj and Umrah experience and improve the services provided.” He said development is ongoing “to keep pace with the numbers” of pilgrims coming from abroad and “provide an exceptional experience.”
Twenty-seven projects, each valued at $25 million or more, are underway in Mecca, according to the Global Data Construction Intelligence Centre. Of these, 13 are in the hospitality, retail and residential sectors, and the rest in transport.
Other multi-billion-dollar projects of tower complexes, like Jabal Omar and Thakher Makkah, talk about “lively, all-inclusive communities” and “balanced spirituality.”
The attempt to blend religious tradition and innovation requires sensitive handling by Saudi Arabia’s leadership, as well as the developers and companies moving in. Mecca is revered by Muslims around the world as the place where the Prophet Muhammed was born and preached 1,400 years ago. Any perceived harm to the sanctity of the holy sites, even unintentional, could upset the faithful.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s leadership wants to emphasize the modern, new Mecca by showing off the grandiose new construction and projects in the pipeline. At the 24-hour Starbucks near the Grand Mosque, a $25 jute shoulder bag shows the clock tower and neighboring high-rises alongside the coffee chain’s logo. Branding for Vision 2030, the economic diversification program, is everywhere.
Mecca residents have mixed feelings about the dramatic transformation of the city.
“It is not the Mecca that we know,” said Fajr Abdullah Abdul-Halim, a 57-year-old who was born and raised in the city but now lives in Jeddah. Her family used to live near the Grand Mosque. Now both the homes are gone. “Before, there were neighborhoods near the Grand Mosque, but now it is mostly towers and overpasses.”
Old neighborhoods like Ajyad, Sad, Jarwal and Shweika, have been remodeled to absorb the increased capacity for religious tourism.
Abdul-Halim said although locals want to live in the city, the construction work has pushed them to the outskirts. “People say it’s better to move out for better schooling and work.”
An Egyptian chef who has worked in Mecca for six years is happy about the new developments and the prospect of wealthier tourists because it means more business for his restaurant. But he acknowledges it comes at a cost, with low-paid laborers from Bangladesh and Myanmar being some of the hardest hit as they get priced out of more neighbourhoods.
Wide-reaching demolitions have also redefined certain parts of the city.
Misfalah, just south of the Grand Mosque, was an area the chef loved to visit as it was where his favourite African restaurant was located. It went with the demolitions, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal in a country where any perceived criticism of authorities can bring severe repercussions.
Another Egyptian, who has lived in Mecca for over a decade and spoke anonymously for the same reason, welcomes the near-constant construction and development because of its positive effect on the economy. The investment has led to new restaurants, hotels, shops and better infrastructure. He has been paid good money to work on projects across the city.
But he worries that the luxury hotels could become a distraction from the religious experience synonymous with Mecca. “Maybe when people come they will forget about the Kaaba … and focus on the buildings and highways,” he said.
Jeffery reported from Cairo.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.