FaithWorld

Builders flock to Mecca to tap into Muslim pilgrimage boom

(Grand Mosque in Mecca surrounded by new construction, November 19, 2010/Fahad Shadeed)

The Saudi holy city of Mecca is proving to be the exception to a Middle East property downturn, as more and more pilgrims flock to Islam’s holiest city and fuel a hotel construction boom. The more than 2.5 million pilgrims who flock to Mecca for the annual Haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, are witnessing a transformation of the city’s skyline with luxury hotels, high-rise residential blocks and cranes now overlooking the Grand Mosque.

“Mecca has now come of age,” said Shuja Zaidi, vice president of projects and general manager for Mecca Hilton & Towers in Saudi Arabia.

A forest of high-rise buildings just next to the Grand Mosque is emerging, built by Saudi developer Jabal Omar and costing more than $5.5 billion, where Hilton and others will open 26 new hotels and add 13,000 more rooms.

“But there’s no doubt that these rooms will also be fully occupied,” said Zaidi. “The simple growth of the Muslim population more than justifies the expansion.”

Mecca goes upmarket but commercialism unnerves some Saudis

meccaSitting 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.” (Photo: The Kabaa andt the Grand Mosque dwarfed by luxury high-rise hotels, 12 Aug 2010/Hassan Ali)

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.