MECCA, Saudi Arabia — The Umm Al Qura highway leading to Mecca’s Grand Mosque is lined with billboards, manicured public spaces, glass-walled shops and elegant towers. It is part of a $26 billion project to attract more Muslims to the holy city’s high-end hotels, residences, retailers and restaurants.
As this year’s Hajj ends on Friday, bringing the annual pilgrimage closer to its pre-pandemic size, Mecca is quickly being pushed to an even bigger scale. The ambitious plan to transform the economy aims to attract more than 30 million religious tourists a year by 2030, with tourism contributing up to $80 billion, or 10% of GDP, as the kingdom reduces its dependence on oil.
The government is reaching out to religious tourism because the demand is already there. Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina.
Muslims around the world are required by their faith to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they can. Millions more come for the Umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be done at any time of the year. The hajj and umrah together attracted around 20 million pilgrims in 2019, before the pandemic.
Neighboring Dubai and Qatar can never compete with this offer, even though they host global events and major sporting events.
Tourism currently contributes 4.45% to Saudi Arabia’s GDP. Although there are no official figures on how much revenue the Hajj generates, the revenue is over $12 billion.
“Saudi Arabia never has to worry about foreign competition because there is only one Mecca and one Medina,” said Bahraini economist Omar Al-Ubaydli. “It’s a great foundation for building a successful income stream. Allowing people to shop, visit museums, attend conferences while performing Umrah is a great strategy for revenue growth.”
For more than a decade, rampant development has transformed the center of Mecca with towers surrounding the Grand Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. Opposite the main entrance of the mosque is the central element, the monumental Mecca Royal Clock Tower, which is the fourth tallest building in the world. Mecca is an alternative spelling of the city’s name.
Hotels within walking distance or overlooking the Grand Mosque charge eye-watering amounts during the Hajj and Ramadan seasons. The best places are already occupied by a Pullman, a Raffles and other luxury hotels.
The companies therefore target the areas northwest and northeast of the Great Mosque. And Umm Al Qura Road is ripe for development.
Behind the bright billboards along the highway, a cluster of cranes, craters and piles of gray debris can be seen during the ongoing construction of the $26 billion Masar Mekkah development project. The plan is to develop a 3.5-kilometer (2-mile) strip of hotels, residential buildings, parks and shopping centers to the Great Mosque area. According to local media reports, 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, there are low-rise and dirty pilgrim accommodation, cheap restaurants and tiny shops filled with the paraphernalia of the pilgrimage – a world away from the bright and posh future of Mecca envisioned by Saudi Arabia. Many pilgrims are sitting on the sidewalks, mostly from developing countries. The curb appeal improves the closer you get to the Great Mosque.
The Associated Press reached out to several Saudi officials and construction companies with detailed questions about religious tourism and plans to develop Mecca’s hospitality industry, but did not receive a response.
Hajj Ministry spokesman Ayedh al-Ghweinim spoke about the ongoing work at a press conference in Mecca this week, saying the government is “always looking to improve the Hajj and Umrah experience and improve the services provided.” He said the development was ongoing to keep up with the number of pilgrims coming from abroad and to “provide an exceptional experience”.
According to the Global Data Construction Intelligence Center, twenty-seven projects are underway in Mecca, each worth $25 million. Of these, 13 are in the catering, retail and residential sectors, the rest in the field of transport.
Other multibillion-dollar tower complex projects, such as Jabal Omar and Thakher Makkah, speak of “vibrant, inclusive communities” and “balanced spirituality.”
The attempt to combine religious traditions and innovation requires a sensitive approach from the leadership of Saudi Arabia, as well as from developers and companies moving in. Muslims around the world revere Mecca as the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth and preaching 1,400 years ago. Any perceived harm to the sanctity of holy places, even unintentional, can upset the faithful.
At the same time, the leadership of Saudi Arabia wants to emphasize the modern, new Mecca by presenting the upcoming grandiose new constructions and projects. At the 24-hour Starbucks next to the Grand Mosque, a $25 jute shoulder bag features the clock tower and neighboring high-rise buildings alongside the coffee chain’s logo. The branding of Vision 2030, the economic diversification program, is everywhere.
Meccans have mixed feelings about the city’s dramatic transformation.
“We don’t know Mecca,” said Fajr Abdullah Abdul-Halim, 57, who was born and raised in the city but now lives in Jeddah. His family used to live near the Great Mosque. Now both houses are gone. “There used to be neighborhoods near the Great Mosque, but now it’s mostly towers and overpasses.”
Old neighborhoods such as Ajyad, Sad, Jarwal and Shweika have been remodeled to accommodate the increased capacity for religious tourism.
Abdul-Halim said that although the locals want to live in the city, construction has pushed them to the outskirts. “People say we’re better off moving for better schooling and better jobs.”
An Egyptian chef who has worked in Mecca for six years is happy with the new developments and the prospect of more affluent tourists because it means more business for his restaurant. But he admits it comes at a price, with low-wage workers in Bangladesh and Myanmar the hardest hit, having to move out of more neighborhoods.
The extensive demolitions also redefined certain parts of the city.
Misfalah, south of the Grand Mosque, was an area the chef liked to visit as it was home to his favorite African restaurant. That’s what went with the demolitions, he said, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals in a country where any criticism of the authorities can have serious consequences.
Another Egyptian, who has lived in Mecca for more than a decade and spoke anonymously for the same reason, welcomes the near-constant construction and development for its positive impact on the economy. The investment resulted in new restaurants, hotels, shops and better infrastructure. He was paid well to work on projects around town.
But he worries that luxury hotels could distract from the religious experience synonymous with Mecca. “Maybe when people come, they forget the Kaaba … and focus on buildings and highways,” he said.
Jeffery reported from Cairo.
Associated Press religion coverage is supported through a partnership between AP and The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.