Mecca goes upmarket but commercialism unnerves some
By Ulf Laessing
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Sitting in the marble lobby of a luxury hotel in Mecca, Moroccan bank director Mohammad Hamdosh gets a breather from the cacophony of pilgrims bustling around the Grand Mosque in Islam's holiest city.
Millions have flocked to the city in Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. But some can afford more than others, and a controversial construction boom is catering to their needs.
"Every pilgrim comes according to his means. God gave me money, so why shouldn't I stay in this hotel?" says Hamdosh, on a trip that has cost him 12,000 Euros ($16,545). "Haj is tiring so it's good to have a room to rest."
Inside the mosque, all pilgrims are equal as they circle the black stone known as the Kaaba toward which Muslims around the world turn in prayer every day.
But outside an array of towering five-star hotels have sprung up where the wealthy can bask in a 24-hour view of the Kaaba. The high-rises dwarf the mosque and the surrounding town, nestled in the mountains in the hinterland of the port city Jeddah.
It is part of a wider project to expand the mosque and bring more Muslims to the holy city for salvation, according to the writs of Islam -- something Saudi Arabia sees as its duty.
Mecca has just inaugurated the world's largest clockface perched Big Ben-style on the front of a high-rise hotel facing the Kaaba, while some 20 cranes next to the mosque herald more luxury accommodation.
The spending spree in Mecca and the second holy city Medina is valued at some $120 billion over the next decade and at present there are $20 billion of projects underway in Mecca alone, according to Banque Saudi Fransi. A square meter land in Mecca costs some 50,000 riyals ($13,333). Continued...