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Mecca Bucks

According to some popular Muslim accounts, the marble Kaaba structure at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was built first by the angels before God created mankind, reconstructed by Adam, and later rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael. It's safe to say that none of these builders could have anticipated the latest use of the Mosque's image, in a promotional DVD for the Abraj Al Bait Towers, a giant new skyscraper complex slated to be built just across the street from one of the entrances to the Grand Mosque. The DVD shows a beautiful woman sitting in one of the towers' luxury apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook thousands of pilgrims circling the Kaaba below. Eyes flashing a come-hither stare from beneath her tightly wound headscarf, she asks prospective buyers in Arabic, "Would you like to be here in this place in front of the Kaaba year after year?"

Unlike the United Arab Emirates, with its Western-friendly, oil-money-flush megalopolises Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia had, until very recently, resisted commercializing its major cities--particularly Mecca, site of Islam's holiest relics, where millions of pilgrims flock yearly to perform the hajj. But the dramatic rise in global oil prices, and the construction boom across Saudi Arabia that followed, has finally caught up with the city where Mohammed was born.

A report by the Saudi British Bank (SABB), one of the kingdom's biggest lenders, estimates that $30 billion will be invested in construction and infrastructure in Mecca over the next four years from local and foreign companies. Up to 130 new skyscrapers are anticipated, including the $6 billion Abraj Al Bait Towers, a seven-tower project that, once completed in 2009, will be one of the largest buildings in the world, with a 60-floor, 2,000-room hotel; a 1,500-person convention center; two heliports; and a four-story mall that will house, among 600 other outlets, Starbucks, The Body Shop, U.K.-based clothing line Topshop (Kate Moss is a guest designer), and Tiffany & Co. En route to the hajj, pilgrims already have the opportunity to stop at cosmetic superstore MAC, perfumery VaVaVoom, and Claire's Accessories. H&M and Cartier are on the way. "All the top brands are flocking here," says John Sfakianakis, SABB's chief economist. "The only thing missing is Filene's Basement."

The boom is coinciding with Saudi Arabia's efforts to diversify its economy, as well as its joining of the WTO in 2005, which forced the kingdom to open its retail sector to foreign companies. Still, it's not surprising that multinational capitalism has honed in on this market: Lots of tourists on vacation, no matter how holy, tend to have a lax grip on their wallets. But, to pull off this remarkable transformation of Islam's spiritual seat, including the destruction of many sites with sacred histories to make way for malls and luxury condos, the luxe brands of the world have had to lean on some unlikely allies.

SAMI ANGAWI, THE FOUNDER AND former director of Mecca's Hajj Research Center and the most vocal opponent of the destruction of Mecca's historic sites, lives in a house in Jeddah built mostly out of salvage from demolished Meccan buildings: hulking wooden doors, intricately carved panels, and ancient stone columns. As the scion of a prominent Mecca family descending from the prophet Mohammed, the fiftysomething Saudi architect has a significant amount of leeway to criticize the government--often joking with the secret police guards stationed outside his house to track his comings and goings (Saudis are thrown into prison on a daily basis for much less).

Angawi uses his freedom to rail against the transformation of his hometown, giving presentations to groups of businessmen about the obliteration of Islam's most significant places. Angawi estimates that over 300 antiquity sites in Mecca and Medina have already been destroyed, such as the house of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, which was leveled to make room for the Mecca Hilton Hotel. (According to Ivor McBurney, a spokesman for Hilton, "We saw the tremendous opportunities to tap into Saudi Arabia's religious tourism segment.")

"It's not just our heritage, it's the evidence of the story of the Prophet," Angawi says, sitting in his incense-filled living room, dressed in his trademark woolen cloak and intricately wound turban--itself an act of rebellion against the austere white robes and simple headdresses that Saudi men are expected to wear. "What can we say now? 'This parking lot was the first school of Islam'? 'There used to be a mountain here where Mohammed made a speech'? ... What's the difference between history and legend?" he asks. "Evidence."

Over protests by groups like the Islamic Supreme Council of America and the Muslim Canadian Congress, Saudi authorities have authorized the destruction of hundreds of antiquities, such as an important eighteenth-century Ottoman fortress in Mecca that was razed to make way for the Abraj Al Bait Towers-- a move the Turkish foreign minister condemned as "cultural genocide." An ancient house belonging to Mohammed was recently razed to make room for, among other developments, a public toilet facility. An ancient mosque belonging to Abu Bakr has now been replaced by an ATM machine. And the sites of Mohammed's historic battles at Uhud and Badr have been, with a perhaps unconscious nod to Joni Mitchell, paved to put up a parking lot. The remaining historical religious sites in Mecca can be counted on one hand and will likely not make it much past the next hajj, Angawi says: "It is incredible how little respect is paid to the house of God."

IRONICALLY, HOWEVER, SOME MAJOR culprits in disrespecting the "house of God" are Wahhabi clerics, crusading to destroy Mecca's historical landmarks, which they fear will lead to idolatry. Developers are often tipped off by the cleric-run ministries about future construction plans. And the Abraj Al Bait Towers are being partially funded by the government through the King Abdul Aziz Endowment, which the towers' developers describe as "a religious property" created to serve interests "vital to the welfare of Islamic society."

Prominent clerics often speak out against conservation efforts like Angawi's--in fact, it was Wahhabis who ran him out of his job in Mecca in the first place, after his increasingly bold criticisms of government policy irked the clerical elite.

"It is not permitted to glorify buildings and historical sites," proclaimed Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, then the kingdom's highest religious authority, in a much-publicized fatwa in 1994. "Such action would lead to polytheism. ... [S]o it is necessary to reject such acts and to warn others away from them."

A pamphlet published last year by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, endorsed by Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and distributed at the Prophet's Mosque, where Mohammed, Abu Bakr, and the Islamic Caliph Umar ibn Al Khattab are buried, reads, "The green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet's Mosque," according to Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. This shocking sentiment was echoed in a speech by the late Muhammad ibn Al Uthaymeen, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent Wahhabi clerics, who delivered sermons in Mecca's Grand Mosque for over 35 years: "We hope one day we'll be able to destroy the green dome of the Prophet Mohammed," he said, in a recording provided by Al Alawi.

The clerics' stance permits the Saudi government to play it both ways, in a perfect marriage of the secular and spiritual. It can destroy ancient sites and still maintain doctrinal credibility; the massive, capitalistic accumulation of wealth becomes a religious necessity, not an evil. "The government has finally woken up to the commercial value of religious tourism," Sfakianakis says, "and they are really the ones driving this construction boom in Mecca."

Saudi officials excuse the unsavory aspects of the development by arguing that it will help ease the housing and services crunch caused by an explosion in the number of pilgrims (while about 2.4 million hajjis visited Mecca last year, some estimate that, over the next decade, the number could rise to 20 million per year). They dismiss critics like Angawi as having an overly sentimental attachment to historical sites. "It is equally fundamentalist to say that we have to keep everything exactly the way it was while the world around us is changing every day," says Nabeel Koshak, an associate professor at the government-funded Umm Al Qura University in Mecca. Habib Zain Al Abideen, the Saudi deputy minister of municipal and rural affairs, head of all the kingdom's hajj-related construction projects, calls the hajj "a good opportunity to visit Mecca and Medina, do some shopping, make a vacation out of it."

Taking his advice in a Topshop less than 100 yards from the Grand Mosque one day in December was Fatima, a twentysomething housewife. Trying to decide between the pink silk-screened tank-top and the lycra scoop-neck blouse, she stood in front of the mirror, frantically holding one and then the other over her black abaya robe. Her friend urged her to hurry up, flashing a Visa card to pay for her stretch jeans and oversized sunglasses at the register so they could make it to the Grand Mosque in time for prayers. But Fatima had been waiting all year to splurge at Topshop. "The store is closing soon," she snaps at her friend. "You can pray any time."

Zvika Krieger is a deputy web editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.

NOTE: This article has been updated to mention the contribution of sources by Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.