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Islam's holiest city set for 130-skyscraper redevelopment

Riazat Butt, religious affairs correspondent
Thursday May 29 2008
The Guardian

The holiest city in Islam is to get a £6bn facelift, it was announced yesterday, with homes and hills being flattened to make way for hotels, apartments, shopping malls and transport facilities for pilgrims. Six development projects ordered by the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, will transform Mecca, which struggles to accommodate the millions of Muslims who pour into the city every year to perform hajj.

The biggest change will be to the courtyards of the Grand Mosque, which can hold at least 100,000 worshippers during prayer times. An ambitious expansion programme has led to the demolition of 1,000 properties in the immediate Shamiya area and Saudi authorities have set aside an estimated £80m to compensate the homeowners.

There will also be a new residential district to the south-west of the mosque. Construction firms have begun to level hills to create a 230,000 square metre area that will include high-rise apartments and air conditioned prayer facilities for up to 120,000.

A new ring road, four kilometres (2.5 miles) long and 80m wide, will ease congestion and link to the Jeddah highway, while a project to the south of the mosque will increase prayer space from 1,170 to 30,000 square metres and provide parking space for more than 1,000 cars.

But Irfan Al Alawi, the founder and former executive director the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said: "It's the Manhattanisation of Mecca. The Saudis want to build skyscrapers. The worry is that as they level hills and mountains they will destroy sites of cultural interest."

A report by the Saudi British Bank, one of the kingdom's biggest lenders, estimates that £15bn will be invested by local and foreign companies in construction and infrastructure in Mecca in the next four years. Up to 130 new skyscrapers are anticipated, including the Abraj Al Bait Towers, a seven-tower project that will be one of the largest buildings in the world, with a 2,000-room hotel, a 1,500-person convention centre, heliports and a four-storey mall that will house hundreds of outlets.

The pilgrims already have the opportunity to stop at Next, TopShop and Starbucks in between their religious rituals.

For developers, Mecca is a concrete business investment, with the guarantee of millions of visitors each year. The world's estimated 1.4 billion Muslims are obliged to complete hajj once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so. Last year up to 4 million people completed hajj, with millions more visiting during the rest of the year.

Next week Mecca - which is strictly off limits to non-Muslims - will host a three-day conference on the importance of dialogue with other religions. The event, to be opened by King Abdullah, will feature scholars and academics from the Islamic world.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

 

 

 

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