Construction Time: The Shopping Mall-ization of Mecca?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 11/18/2014 01:30:00 AM
In real-estate parlance, modern Mecca is a "mixed-use development."
Our Muslim brethren ("brethren" is actually a gender-neutral term since the corresponding "sistren" is now archaic) are obliged to go on the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca if their health and finances permit at least once during their lifetimes. There being over one and a half billion Muslims worldwide, think of the numbers of people Mecca must accommodate as this important religion continues to expand. It is not easy to cater to hundreds of millions making literally a journey of a lifetime who expect much of their visit. A captive market of 1.5+ billion! I should be so lucky (lucky, lucky, lucky).

Having done some research into tourism, I am conscious of the tradeoff between authenticity and commerce. Nowhere is this tradeoff more evident in terms of accommodating religious pilgrimages to Mecca. Hence, Saudi Arabian authorities have the difficult task of dealing with ever-larger volumes of pilgrims while simultaneously maintaining the sanctity of the site. Is this balance being achieved? The British Independent reports that some traditionalists are saying "not so" with all the construction going on:

The site in Mecca where the Prophet Mohamed is said to have been born is about to be “buried under marble” and replaced by a huge royal palace. The work is part of a multibillion-pound construction project in the holy city which has already resulted in the destruction of hundreds of historic monuments.
The project, which began several years ago, aims to expand the al-Masjid al-Haram, or the Grand Mosque, to cater for the millions of pilgrims who make their way to the holy city each year for the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are obliged to make at least once. Mecca is the holiest city in Islam because of its link to the birth of the Prophet, and because it is the site of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building made from black granite and said to have been built by Abraham. The Grand Mosque is built around it, and Muslims face towards it when they pray.
It's construction time again, with allegedly harmful consequences for the historical sites in Mecca:
Many have looked on aghast at the destruction of hundreds of historic buildings and monuments to make way for the Grand Mosque’s expansion. According to the Gulf Institute, based in Washington, up to 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been destroyed, to be replaced with luxury hotels, apartments and shopping malls.

Last week, the remaining 500-year-old Ottoman columns, commemorating the Prophet’s ascent to heaven, were destroyed, Dr Irfan Alawi of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, told The Independent. He said that the House of Mawlid, thought to be where the Prophet was born in AD570, is likely to be destroyed before the end of the year.

We see here the contradiction that many perceive in Saudi Arabia: the caretakers of the holiest sites of Islam outwardly adopt the most conservative of stances of religion practice, yet they are also rather worldly in the sense of commercialization. Think of Saudi Arabia being the region's largest oil exporter as well.
To be fair, it is not easy to discount the argument that all these improvements are meant to facilitate handling large volumes of pilgrims. With so many millions coming to fulfill their religious obligations, the volume can literally be crushing, with fatal consequences. That said, reported plans to add shopping malls and suchlike would sit incongruously with a religious site of greatest importance.

The thing with many developing countries including Saudi Arabia is that they do not have listings like England's national heritage list that marks off sites and structures of historic importance which cannot be readily be built on. Of course, identifying such sites would require an arbiter independent of the monarchy. Is that possible? Wahhabism--the tenets of Islam followed by Saudi Arabia's leadership--may not be especially keen on placing too much emphasis on symbols such as sites--think of Protestantism's differences with Catholicism on iconography. Consider:
The brand-new Royal Mecca Clock Tower is among the tallest buildings in the world, and stands at the centre of a complex with a mall, hotel, and prayer hall. Other planned projects include an expansion of the Grand Mosque, high-rise hotel and apartment towers, and even new train lines. But those projects are drawing criticism from architects, historians, archaeologists, as well as pilgrims who question the value of the new additions.

Opponents also say rents in some of the new buildings close to the Grand Mosque are exorbitant and will only deepen the divide between rich and poor.

But the harshest condemnation has been reserved for the continued demolition of several significant historical and religious sites to make way for the new developments. Critics accuse the government of destroying those landmarks in accordance with Wahhabism, the country's official interpretation of Islam, which believes that shrines encourage idolatry. 
On one hand I have nothing against improving structures to make them fit for hosting more guests. On the other hand, the commercialization of the property into high-rise apartments and shopping centers does not necessarily follow--especially knocking down sites of religious importance to make way. Ironically, because Mecca is a religious site of such stature, millions and millions would still go there if it were remade into a theme park or something of that sort. However, would a single tourist go to, say, Shakespeare's birthplace if it were knocked down to make way for a strip mall? I think not.  All I can say is, thank heavens for national heritage trusts and their equivalents throughout the world.

Sometimes it shouldn't be about the money. Coming from the IPE Zone, that's saying something.