Mecca's creeping capitalism

The Mecca Clock Tower stands a symbol of the increasing disparity between rich and poor in Islam's holiest city. But what do the locals there think of it?

Share

Travelling to Mecca as a child, I would shut my eyes as we would approach the boundaries of Masjid al Haram just so I may be able to capture the sense of awe upon arrival. Perhaps it was my heart singing with anticipation, but I always felt something distinct about the air, too, as if infused all of sudden with a kind of sanctity.  And then came the first glance of the marbled minarets, and the Grand Mosque, lit up in all its glory, lay before our eyes.

During the last few trips for Umrah (minor pilgrimage), the journey to Mecca has been poignant for all its spiritual significance — the only aberration in sight is now posed  by the glittering Abraj al Bait (Royal Hotel Clock Tower), visible to the eye from a distance of a good 30 kilometers. Looming above what was once a desert landscape now transformed into matrix of hotels and plazas for pilgrims, the Mecca Clock Tower is the second tallest building in the world, modeled on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and London’s Big Ben, and hosting an array of luxury apartments and outlets. For some it has been a sign of modernization; for others a source for great distaste.

As the tower looms into focus, I interrupt my prayers for a moment. Much has been written on the controversial towers which stand on top a demolished Ottoman fortress and the values of equality and simplicity enjoined by Islam.  Even more has been written on puritan Wahhabism promoting the destruction of historical sites.  But I am eager to engage with local perceptions. I turn to the driver, an Egyptian settled in Saudi Arabia for the past ten years, and voice my reservations.

" Kalaam Madhboot (Strong Point) ", he responds promptly, as if he was waiting for this conversation. It is clear that there is much he hasn’t been able to voice before with abandon.  But for him, it is not merely the excessive capitalism exhibited by the structures or the disparities of wealth that are troublesome, as they are for me. The construction has been taking toil over something far more sacred: the Zamzam.

"God promised that the flow of Zamzam would never ebb—until the Day of Judgment," he says solemnly. "This construction has been affecting the flow of Zamzam."

The ongoing project to extend Masjid al Haram has pushed back all hotels in the vicinity of the mosque, with the exception of Abraj al Bait. It stands overbearingly as pilgrims traverse several kilometers and back for each prayer, five times a day. From the old Mecca that I remember, I am grateful for a small strip of land they have retained to feed the pigeons in dozens — more pigeons than were ever sighted even in Trafalgar Square. But each trip from and back to the hotel is marked by a solemn reminder of all that the Saudi government could achieve — and has not — for welfare of the poor. As we step out of Masjid al Haram, we arrive at the side entrance of Abraj al Bait, lined with handicapped beggars, or as I learn later, with asylum seekers and refugees from Somalia and Sudan.

Now, for all its moral policing and emphasis on an Islamic society, Saudi Islam lacks the vigour of social justice

How do frequenting pilgrims and residents reconcile with this, only minutes after praying shoulder to shoulder in the Mosque, all distinctions vanished? Three words in Arabic emblazoned across Abraj al Bait seem to be justifying the towering existence: Waqf lil-Haramain Sharefain (Endowment for Haramain Sharefain, i.e. the Two Holy Mosques). For the lay person in Mecca, the Clock tower is sold as capitalism with a cause. Many even view it as part and parcel of the project to extend the Mosque so that more pilgrims may be accommodated for Hajj.  The land has been sold to the Saudi Bin Laden Group, the Kingdom’s wealthiest construction company, for a designated period of time. Some say twenty years, others thirty or even forty; it is unclear. At the end of this period, the company is expected to pay an installment sum to the government for the Mosque extension.  For many Meccans, it is a version of Robin Hood.  The only exception, of course, is that the money does not go into the pockets of the poor, but back to businessmen and petromonarchs churning out thousands of petrol dollars by the hour.

This inconsistency is hardly new for Saudi Arabia, a country that has been under the scrutiny of many intellectuals for endorsing an Islam that is strangely compatible with hard core capitalism.  It is also unheeded by many Saudis who seem to take inequalities of wealth and distinctions of rank as a norm, and not a privilege or an active responsibility. Mecca, the cradle of Islam, still retains its character as a hub of business and trading activity.  But it is in the same streets now prowling with high rise luxury hotels where the revolutionary message of Islam once dismantled all economic and political hierarchies. Now, for all its moral policing and emphasis on an Islamic society, Saudi Islam lacks the vigour of social justice.

But not all things have changed in Mecca. The government may be demolishing historical sites, but the Meccans are fiercely passionate about their city and their history. Equally passionate are they of the Grand Mosque. Each house has a picture of the latest model of Haram, as projected to be in 2020. Over dinner tables, the new face of the Mosque is a frequent topic of discussion.

At the end of our five prayers, my father’s old friend, a schoolteacher of Mathematics, awaits in his car to give us a tour of Mecca. Al-Hamdi* is standing in his white Saudi thobe and checkered headdress tucked in on the sides, and his smiling face has not changed much in the years since I last visited.

For some the Mecca Clock Tower has been a sign of modernization; for others a source for great distaste

Our first stop is the plain of Arafat. On the way, he pauses at a street, like every other in Mecca: "here was the residence of Khadija al kubra, blessings be upon her," he says respectfully. A non-native would never be able to tell. There is no sign or indication. As we near the plain of Arafat, passing by stretches of barren land, al-Hamdi suddenly speeds up his car. A moment later, he explains: "That was the location where God unleashed his wrath: hordes of Ababil to defeat the army of Abraha. We try to drive past this area as quickly as possible." I am amazed at his knowledge, and at once, reminded of the oral culture of pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia.  Back then, stories and histories were transmitted by word of mouth. Even the Qur’an was recorded in the memory of thousands before being officially transcribed. For many Meccans, history speaks in every street and is passed on from generation to generation.

When we finally arrive at the plain of Arafat, where millions of pilgrims gather for what is considered the pinnacle of Hajj, the area has been transformed into a bustling picnic spot. Saudi families are seated with their cushions and picnic baskets, kahwa and dates; soon we find our own spot under Jabal al-Rahma, where the Prophet gave his last sermon. Miniature jeeps with blinking lights and decorated camels cruise around for the entertainment of young children. I am struck by the ease with which the Arafat turns from a sacred ground to a picnic spot, and back again, with little identity crisis.

On the way back to our hotel, we pass by a residential district of Bengali, Pakistani and Afghani immigrants. This land, too, will be bought by the government to accommodate new hotels. Since most Saudis are reluctant to criticize their government, I ask my question differently."Are the people happy with these changes in the city?" Al-Hamdi shrugs. "These people will be compensated by the government; but with rising property costs there is probably little that can be done with the lump-sum amount."

I turn once again to Abraj al Bait’s towering existence. "Is it not contradictory to the Islamic values of equality and simplicity," I ask, a last time.

 Hamdi pauses. "Rizq (sustenance) is from God" is the characteristic response."What matters," he adds as an afterthought, "is that no party steals from the other: rich or poor."

*This name has been changed to protect anonymity

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

C# .Net Developer

£23000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: C# .Net Develop re...

Electronics Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client are l...

Senior BI Engineer (BI/MI, Data Mining)

£60000 - £65000 per annum + Bonus & Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior BI Enginee...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: Joe on Vlad, banks of the Jordan and Blair's radicalism

John Rentoul
 

Believe me, I said, there’s nothing rural about this urban borough’s attempt at a country fair

John Walsh
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor