A mammoth new hotel is rising in Saudi Arabia’s holy city Mecca. When completed it will have 10,000 rooms spanning more than 1.4 million square meters, and 70 restaurants catering to the most affluent of pilgrims from the Gulf and abroad.
Resembling a traditional fortress, the hotel Abraj Kudai consist of a ring of 12 towers soaring 45 stories into the sky. Atop its central tower will be one of the world’s largest domes. Surrounding this dome will be five helipads. The world’s biggest hotel will also feature a bus station, food courts, and a shopping mall on the lower levels and a ballroom housed inside the dome. The interiors, as expected, will be lavishly decorated.
A computer-generated 3D model of the under-construction hotel Abraj Kudai.
Located just 2 km away from the Holy Haram in Mecca, Abraj Kudai is the latest attempt by the Gulf country to turn Mecca into Manhattan. In the past few years, the city has seen tremendous expansion in size and infrastructure, and home to structures such as the Abraj Al Bait, a mega complex consisting of seven skyscraper hotels overlooking the Kaaba – the black cube at the center of the world’s largest mosque around which Muslims walk during Haj. One of the hotels, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel is the world’s third tallest building and fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world. This tower also boasts of having the world’s largest clock face. At night, the glowing clock face is visible from 30 km away.
The construction of Abraj Al Bait caused quite a controversy. The developers razed a historic 18th century Ottoman-era fortress along with a small hill upon which the fortress stood to make room for the structure. The Ajyad Fortress was built in 1780 under Ottoman rule in order to protect the Kaaba from bandits and invaders.
The Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel. Notice how it dwarfs the Great Mosque and the black Kabba, which itself is a gigantic structure.
Irfan Al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has been trying with little success to campaign for the protection of what little heritage that is left in Saudi Arabia’s holy cities. “Everything has been swept away to make way for the incessant march of luxury hotels, which are destroying the sanctity of the place and pricing normal pilgrims out,” Al-Alawi told The Guardian.
The destruction of heritage sites associated with early Islam has been going on since centuries driven by the Wahabi belief that idol worship is sinful. In Mecca and Medina, the very structures associated with the prophet and his family such as tombs, mausoleums, mosques and homes were destroyed. The house of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, was demolished to make way for a library, according to Wikipedia, and public lavatories, according to The Guardian. Where the house of Islam’s first caliph, Abu Bakr, once stood now stands a Hilton hotel. The house where Muhammad was born now lies in ruins. The house where he lived in Medina, and the first Islamic school where Muhammad taught were leveled to the ground. The list of heritage crimes goes on.
“They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains,” says Sami Angawi, an architect and founder of the Jeddah-based Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting the historic buildings of Mecca and Medina.
Thousands of tents housing Muslim pilgrims fill the landscape in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca.
Religious pilgrimages make up the bulk of the tourists to Saudi Arabia, especially to Mecca, where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. During the annual Hajj, Mecca receives over three million pilgrims but during the rest of the year more than 20 million visit the city, which has become a popular place for weddings and conferences. To accommodate the growing influx, the Saudi authorities has deemed it necessary to raze large tracts of formerly residential neighborhoods as well as heritage sites to make way for pilgrimage-related infrastructure.
In the city of Mina, 8 km away from Mecca, the Saudi government has installed more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents to accommodate Hajj pilgrims. Although their accommodation is temporary, the tents are permanent.
Another large ongoing construction project in Mecca is the Jabal Omar development consisting of 40 residential towers that will accommodate 160,000 Islamic pilgrims, and a prayer area for 200,000 worshippers. The Grand Mosque itself is undergoing a USD 50 billion expansion to double the capacity of its prayer halls, from 3 million to nearly 7 million. To make room for the gigantic project, a vast part of the old city was flattened to the ground. Residents were evicted with one week’s notice, and many have still not been compensated—a common story across Mecca’s developments, says Irfan al-Alawi. “They are now living in shantytowns on the edge of the city without proper sanitation. Locals, who have lived here for generations, are being forced out to make way for these marble castles in the sky.”
The most anticipated is the Jeddah Tower, also known as Kingdom Tower, in the port city of Jeddah, which is expected to stand a kilometer tall with over 250 floors. It will be the tallest building in the world outranking the 828-meter-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
“It is the end of Mecca,” says Alawi. “And for what? Most of these hotels are 50% vacant and the malls are empty – the rents are too expensive for the former souk stall-holders. And people praying in the new mosque extension will not even be able to see the Kaaba.”
This is how the northern side of the Grand Mosque will look like. The black Kabba is a tiny speck on the bottom right.
The sky behind the Great Mosque is bristling with cranes heralding one tower hotel after another.
The Jabal Omar development, also under construction.
The Abraj Kudai hotel, the largest hotel in the world, as it will appear when completed.
The Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel when still under construction.
The towers of the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel, as visible from the mosque.