Makkah: The Commodification of a City

Aisha Hasan

Home to the most sacred mosque on Earth, the city of Makkah holds a special place in the hearts of all Muslims. Throughout Islamic history it has a held a nostalgia, not only as the beloved homeland of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, but also as home to the Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail. For centuries, pilgrims have flocked to Makkah during the Hajj season, honouring its noble history and deepening their own relationship with the Divine; it is thus cemented as a place of transformation, spiritual reconnection and — for most — a once in a lifetime experience.

Yet the city has experienced perhaps its most radical change in its history over the past two decades. This is most obvious in the landscape around the mosque, with the high rise hotels irrevocably changing the skyline, and the launch of the King Abdullah extension project. But the skyscrapers and construction are only a symbol of the deeper change in values that is reflected in the management of the sacred mosque. Amid widespread reforms in the kingdom, changing beliefs about the centrality of the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia’s identity are clearly evident in Makkah at a physical and religious level.

Whilst few details are released by the Saudi government regarding the management of the site, this article draws on information provided by travel agents, regular visitors and residents of the city. Judging by the latest developments, Makkah is on a markedly different trajectory compared to the past, setting a concerning precedent for the future.

Expansion: for the few, not the many

One of the greatest changes pilgrims to the holy city will recognise is a much larger sacred mosque than ever before. Birds-eye images from the past show a roughly rectangular mosque, with obvious Ottoman features against a backdrop of not too distant mountains and 20th century hotels; today, the sprawling complex expands in all directions, appearing hexagonal from above.

The new developments are part of the major project known as the King Abdullah expansion, which the Saudi government embarked upon in 2011. Relying on land to the northeast, the plans expropriate an additional 3 million square feet[1], almost doubling the mosque’s initial size at a reported cost of some $26 billion, with some $35 billion paid in compensation to landowners[2]. After several years of construction, including around the Kaaba itself with a temporary tawaaf platform, both the area for tawaaf (mataaf) and the prayer area have expanded outwards. When the mosque resumed normal operations in 2022 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, approximately 80 new prayer halls in the adjoining expansion were opened for the first time. The mosque complex now has a capacity of 2 million visitors.

Critics of the expansion have long raised the alarm bells over the destruction of the city’s heritage and the modernisation of the complex. This criticism is often rebutted by the argument that with a growing global Muslim population and expanding access to air travel increasing the capacity of the mosque allows more pilgrims are able to make this journey of a lifetime.

In practice, however, the expansion has in fact facilitated the opposite and instead entrenched inequality in accessing the holy mosque.

From a design perspective, much of the mosque remains inaccessible to the elderly and disabled, the former of whom make up much of the site’s visitors. While wheelchairs and more recently electric wheelchairs are permitted in designated areas for the rituals of tawaaf and sa’i, little is done to actually facilitate the transport of such individuals around the huge complex. With individuals often directed to pray in the expansion on the northwestern side, at busy times the elderly and chronically ill can be forced to walk for more than half an hour to find a place to pray.

The immense size of the mosque favours those who are staying close to the complex and able to enter it without having to walk long distances. Hotels that border the mosque generally charge higher price points and attract a more wealthy clientele. Those who are lucky enough to pay for such privilege are able to access the masjid easily; at busy periods, they can join the congregation in designated, air conditioned prayer rooms within their hotel where the speakers are connected to the imam’s microphone.

For those whose hotels are not on the doorstep of the haram, they are forced to either journey well in advance of salah and wait for the prayer or relegated to praying on the concourse or even further back in the streets. It is thus a strange site to behold upon entering the haram. To see hundreds of poorer visitors, most hailing from South Asia, North and sub-Saharan Africa, sitting in the blazing sun outside the mosque complex itself, shading their children with scarves or bags, while Muslims from richer regions adorned with designers handbags and watches rush back into the lobbies of their air conditioned luxury hotels.

Whilst such issues could be dismissed as unintentional, there is also evidence of bias in the mosque regulations themselves. In Ramadan of this year, several of the most sought after prayer areas — those on the ground floor near the mataaf with the Ka’bah in full view — were cordoned off and restricted to a handful of Saudi men and women, clearly VIPs, who had been authorised to enter. When questioned why other pilgrims could not pray there, guards turned aspiring worshippers away saying only that the area was forbidden for them.

One has to question, with such access issues: is the haram extension really serving its purpose? Does a greater amount of space to pray really allow more access to the holy mosque? Or has it overlooked measures that would make the haram more equitable, in favour of drawing more people to the mosque, prioritising revenue from visitors over the spiritual experience of a fulfilling pilgrimage?

Consumerism in the Clock Tower

Towering above the haram at the very edge of the mosque stands the fourth highest building in the world, Abraj al-Bait, also known as the Clock Tower complex. Although the government-owned skyscraper complex hosts numerous hotels, the tower is open to all visitors as a shopping mall. On the doorstep of the haram and directly opposite the King Abdul Aziz gate, hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through its doors everyday in between prayers.

Trading has always been a feature of Makkah; since before the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, businessmen would prepare their wares for the annual pilgrimage and entice foreign visitors with promises of good deals. Yet many of the shopping centres of today feel markedly different. Modelled after Western malls, visitors are greeted by an array of Western shops, from Guess and Swatch to previously H&M and Debenhams. Department and chain stores selling oud, jewellery and abayas crowd the ground floor. The food options are no different. In Ramadan, queues outside Starbucks stretch down the width of the centre for hours after iftar. In the food court, locals and foreigners flock to Western fast food outlets like KFC and McDonalds. Hotels in the tower and surrounding area offer endless buffets for visitors in palatial restaurant lounges; the immense amount of waste is given no thought.

The irony is stark. In the most sacred place on earth, while one finds true contentment in worship and connection to the divine, one also witnesses its antithesis — unrestrained hedonism for food and luxury goods. It is dystopic that in a place where worshippers implore God for protection from that which will lead them astray, they are pushed to indulge in actions that steep our souls in this dunya and destroy this planet over which we have been given stewardship. It adds insult to injury that, whilst no expense has been wasted on ensuring that shoppers and hotel guests are afforded every extravagance, the haram has been made more inaccessible and uncomfortable for many.

The rampant consumerism that has become the norm only highlights the sad state of the ummah today. While pilgrims enter into the state of ihram, wearing only the most basic of clothing to signify the equality of humanity, this is only surface level. Even before ihram is removed, the inequity of the world is exposed through the choice of where pilgrims will eat: at a stall on the roadside, or Burger King.

Vision 2030: De-islamisation

The changes witnessed in Makkah are not unique. Since the ascension of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the kingdom has witnessed numerous changes, including a reversal on the infamous women’s driving ban, the opening of cinemas and relaxations on the previous strict dresscode. As part of its ambitious Vision 2030 development plan, the kingdom aims to modernise not only technologically but also socially. In 2019, one hundred concerts took place across the country, featuring artists like Nikki Minaj, Justin Bieber and David Guetta, with plans to increase the number of events by 600%[3]. The liberalising of religious norms is undeniable.

This year such changes also extended to restrictions on mosques, with Bin Salman banning the broadcast of Ramadan prayers in mosques on media outlets. This initially applied to the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah as well, but after public backlash an exception was issued[4]. Even in the two holy cities, taraweeh prayers were shortened to ten units, half of their usual number. Whilst the impact of coronavirus was cited as a reason, other COVID precautionary measures were notably absent, with little to no enforcement of mask wearing. Ramadan regulations also stated that the du’a during the night prayer was to be kept short; in the two holy mosques, supplications for the ummah were largely absent, referenced only in the most general of terms.

Since the significance of Makkah to the image of Saudi Arabia cannot be overlooked, the Saudi government has embarked on both a redevelopment and public relations campaign in an effort to rebrand the city. The MASAR urban development project comprises over 1.2 million square metres of a central pedestrian boulevard leading to Al Haram Mosque. Advertised as “providing unparalleled experience and modern hospitality”, publicity material notably does not feature images of the holy mosque or pilgrims wearing ihram. Several Saudi residents criticised the erasure of the city’s heritage and religious identity.

More recently, the decision of the Saudi government to dramatically restructure Hajj application procedures ahead of this year’s pilgrimage season has elicited controversy. The change has caused a logistical nightmare for hundreds of thousands of hujjaj who have been forced to reapply just weeks before travelling, with many losing years’ worth of savings. The system now puts Muslim from the West on par with those in Muslim majority countries, who traditionally have been permitted to attend Hajj only when selected through a lottery system. While concerns have been raised about the loss of livelihood for operators, with the overnight eradication of the Hajj and Umrah industry[5], as well as the limited travel options on offer, the equalisation of opportunity and lower prices are positives for some.

However, the new system will also give the Saudi administration even greater control over the Hajj experience. With imam-led packages possibly a thing of the past, Saudi trained officials will be provided to guide people through the experience, all of whom can be expected to abide by a very hard line around religious and political stances, while depriving many of the mentorship and teaching of local scholars. The application procedure may also make it easier for officials to deny prospective pilgrims’ applications based on their politics, with concerns regarding data harvesting already apparent[6]. In some countries, two of the three packages on offer do not include a trip to Madinah, undermining the status of the second holiest and significantly less commercialised city, and elevating Makkah with all its modern trappings.

Even as Saudi Arabia cements its control over the religious rites in the holy cities, its desire to separate itself from its religious identity has been openly acknowledged. Speaking at the Oxford Union, Saudi ambassador to the UK Khalid bin Bandar argued that the kingdom has never claimed religious authority or sought to influence the development of religion[7]. This image is in stark contrast to the title of the Saudi king, ‘guardian of the two holy sites’, let alone the impact of Saudi-funded mosques and teachers across the world. The Kingdom’s break with Wahhabism is further evidenced by Bin Salman announcing a new national holiday to celebrate the founding of the kingdom, attributing the founding of the kingdom to 1727 before the appearance of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in the region. The new Saudi identity thus not only withdraws from its fringe religious opinions, but is firmly nationalist, increasingly secular and neglects the Islamic significance of Makkah by design.

A Changing Pilgrimage

It is a fact that millions of Muslims across the world have been enabled to perform pilgrimage and visit the holy sites in the last 20 years, thanks to the development and management of Makkah. This is undoubtedly a good thing; but the status of ‘guardians of the two holy sites’ has often been used by detractors to insulate the kingdom from criticism. Positive change cannot be guaranteed, particularly given recent trends in the kingdom, and these developments warrant further scrutiny.

Despite the noted changes, Makkah retains not only its spiritual significance, but its unique charm; the city that truly never sleeps, its nights are busier than its days as people enter the most sacred of places to offer qiyam-u- layl. The sight of the Ka’bah and the surrounding landscape upon which the message of Islam first descended cannot but enrich the soul and remind it of its Creator. The spirit and essence of Makkah cannot change, and so making pilgrimage to the holy sites must remain a priority for Muslims around the world.

Nevertheless, efforts must be made to resist the commodification of the House of Allah ﷻ. The rampant inequality of access to the mosque cannot be ignored and Muslims must be wary of contributing to it. Future visitors to the city must be on guard against treating Makkah as simply another halal tourism destination. Even as efforts are made to turn the city into a quasi-religious resort, responsibility lies with pilgrims to ensure the purpose of the visit of a lifetime remains front and centre. Amid rampant social change and de-islamisation, Muslims must be savvy to the broader developments in the kingdom and condemn the downplaying of Islamic values in the homeland of Islam.

Indeed, those who persist in disbelief and hinder [others] from the Way of Allah and from the Sacred Mosque — which We have appointed for all people, residents and visitors alike — along with whoever intends to deviate by doing wrong in it, We will cause them to taste a painful punishment.


Al-Qur’an 22:25

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[1] King Abdullah Expansion, Madain Project (2020)

[2] Fahy, M. “King Salman launches five projects at Grand Mosque in Mecca”, The National News Business (2017)

[3] Smith, D., Saudi Arabia Plans Up to 600% Increase In Concerts Next Year Following Justin Bieber, David Guetta Performances, Digital Music News (2021)

[4] Uddin, R. Saudi Arabia confirms Mecca and Medina broadcasts will continue after backlash over ban, Middle East Eye (2022)

[5] £175m UK hajj travel industry at risk of collapse, Sky News (2022)

[6] Ullah, A. Hajj: Western pilgrims receive ‘spam’ emails hours after signing up to Saudi portal, Middle East Eye (2022)

[7] Saudi Ambassador to UK on Vision 2030 and Regional Security, Oxford Union (2022)

One thought on “Makkah: The Commodification of a City

  1. It is time for a global movement to remove the control of the Holy cities from the Saudi’s and be controlled by an international body

    Like

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