The ever-changing face of Makkah

Mohammed, a Makkah native in his late fifties, has seen his city transform during his lifetime. “In the 1970s, we had no tall buildings, no skyscrapers. The skyline was one of minarets. The Grand Mosque was simpler and we had fewer visitors. Makkah was still ringed by mountains,” he says. “It’s a different city today, a city that is known globally and visited by millions. What you see around you is a reflection of that vision.”

Today’s Makkah is a metropolis, welcoming more than 20 million pilgrims every year. Situated an hour’s drive – 60km – from Jeddah on the Kingdom’s western coast, the holiest city in Islam has been transformed over the past 50 years.

Makkah has become, in effect, the most visible and powerful symbol of the Kingdom’s own transformation from a country that was one of the poorest in the world to a state that wields global influence.

“The House of Saud has long recognized the power and symbolism of Makkah and they have done their best to develop Makkah and project its grandness to the hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide,” explains a Riyadh-based diplomat who asked not to be named. “The city is a symbol to billions of Muslims and it’s no surprise that the official title for the Saudi King is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Makkah’s development is central to Saudi Arabia’s own image among Muslims.”

As a must-visit destination for more than 1.7 billion Muslims – performing the Hajj is incumbent on all able-bodied Muslims – the Kingdom’s authorities have focused on developing the city’s center, at the heart of which is the Grand Mosque. Designed with the Kaabah, the House of God, at its center, the Grand Mosque has undergone numerous expansions since the 1955, when its capacity was 50,000 worshipers. Today, it can accommodate more than two million worshipers at any one time thanks to the third and current expansion, which will result in an additional 1.47 million meters of space being added to the complex.

To the masses of pilgrims who visit Makkah, everything about the Grand Mosque is breath-taking. Built at an estimated construction cost of $26.6 billion, the third expansion has increased the number of gates to 78.

The complex includes 21,000 toilets and places of ablution, as well as 680 escalators and 24 elevators. The Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in the world, truly inspires all those who lay their eyes on this immense structure.

Mega projects

The Grand Mosque expansion isn’t the only mega project in Makkah. There’s the government-funded Makkah Gate project, which totals 112 million square meters of land situated alongside the Makkah-Jeddah highway and will accommodate nearly 800,000 people when it is completed in 15 to 20 years. This project will be the first fully developed community concept within Makkah.

“The project will consist of 45 model districts. It will include a complex for government offices, road projects, an amusement park, educational and health institutions, public utilities and shopping malls,” explained Mahmoud Al Maghrabi, deputy director of the Department of Land Affairs at Makkah Gate Company, the project’s developer, during the last major update on the undertaking last year. In addition, a university, cultural facilities, museums, heritage centers and a national amusement park will be built as part of Makkah Gate.

Another mega project is the Jabal Omar Development, a $3.2 billion joint stock investment that has forty 20-storey residential towers to accommodate 160,000 Islamic pilgrims, as well as two five-star hotels with 935 rooms, six three-star hotels with 1,255 rooms, 520 restaurants and 4,360 commercial and retail units. Other projects include Jabal Khandama, the first phase of which would deliver 7,458 rooms for pilgrims, as well as a host of regeneration initiatives in and around the older parts of the city. When completed, these projects will add significantly to Makkah’s current room supply of 270,000, including pilgrim accommodation.

The city is synonymous with a number of superlatives, be it the world’s largest clock tower, which stands meters away from the Grand Mosque as part of the Abraj Al-Bait Towers, or the world’s largest hotel, the 10,000-bedroom £2.3 billion Abraj Kudai. However, it is likely there’s even more to come in terms of Makkah’s development and regeneration. Speaking to The Economist at the beginning of the year, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman spoke of his desire to leverage the government’s vast land ownership in the Holy City.

“We have four million square meters in Makkah alone of unutilized state-owned lands. The value in the market is very high; we have many assets that could be transformed into investment assets. We believe we could reach a point of non-oil revenues reaching $100 billion over the next five years,” said Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. “There are unutilized assets: expanding religious tourism, like increasing the numbers of tourists and pilgrims to Makkah and Madina, will give more value to state-owned lands in both cities.”

Makkah’s development has helped to reposition the city from a purely religious destination to a metropolis with a significant retail presence. According to the real estate advisory firm JLL, Makkah has 1.5 million square meters of retail space.

The growth of retail is even more pronounced to those on the ground; from Tommy Hilfiger to Donna Karan New York, GAP and Paris Hilton, many global brands have found that there’s a strong demand for their wares among Makkah’s many residents and visitors.

“Makkah’s retail space is significant for a city of two million, which is greater than Jeddah and almost as high as Riyadh’s retail space,” says Jamil Ghaznawi, national director and country head for Saudi Arabia at JLL. “Ironically, if you go back in time to old Makkah, the tribes around the city used to make their money from trade. Retail and trade have been a magnet to Makkah around the Grand Mosque for thousands of years. What we see today is a continuation of that. The Hajjaj buy clothes and other retail items. The Starbucks in front of the Grand Mosque has the highest sales of any Starbucks per square meter globally. This is the experience of Hajj and this is why retail has been traditionally strong in Makkah.”

Construction boom

Beginning in the 1990s, Makkah’s construction boom has lasted more than two decades and shows few signs of slowing down despite the global economic crunch. The scale of the construction has impacted the city in a number of ways and it has also affected both the flow and the supply of rooms available for pilgrims. Safety has also been in the spotlight, particularly following the events of September 2015, when a crane collapsed onto the Grand Mosque, causing the deaths of more than 100 people in and around the Mosque’s compound.

“The crane arm was left up and the high winds and thunderstorm also contributed to the disaster,” one official told Newsweek Middle East on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media. “There was no criminal blame, but safety standards were not
adhered to and the contractor is responsible for these failings,” he added.

Images of that tragedy and another during Hajj when more than 1,000 pilgrims died during a stampede have struck at the Kingdom’s legitimacy as the guarantor of safety and security for the millions who make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

The Saudi authorities reacted quickly and decisively following both tragedies by initiating an urgent investigation into the accidents’ causes. The main developer in the city, the Saudi Bin Ladin Group, was barred from any future projects. The incidents, however, have brought into focus the challenges presented by the breakneck pace of construction in Makkah.

However, one of the Kingdom’s leading architects believes that lessons have been learned and that the authorities are putting safety first despite the challenges. “Makkah is the world’s largest construction site. Today, security and safety are a priority,” notes architect Faisal Alfadl, secretary-general of the Saudi Green Building Forum. “Before, projects were rushed. There’s a new challenge, what with the need to bring in new contractors following the events of 2015. The new contractors have to pick up the pace, but with the necessary focus on health and safety.”

“One major challenge for contractors is the density around the Holy Mosque and the other is the seasonality,” adds Ghaznawi. “These projects are often delayed as Makkah is not an easy place to operate in. It’s a matter of proper management to work around these challenges. The Mosque cannot be shut down, so the risk has to be managed.”

Another major challenge is that of logistics, of moving the millions of pilgrims into and around the city’s holy places while ensuring their safety. The work done on ensuring the safety of Hajj pilgrims, an effort that has been dubbed the most complex logistics operation in the world, includes the spending of billions of dollars on both infrastructure, such as pedestrian bridges and tunnels and fireproof tent cities, as well as on management advice and logistics systems to handle the massive influx. Additional mega projects will help to ensure a smooth flow of pilgrims to and from the city’s religious sites.

“One has to look at the bigger picture, to look at what is happening in terms of Jeddah with the airport expansion and seaport. Jeddah is the entrance to Makkah. And there is the Haramain Railway between Madina and Makkah, and the Makkah railway itself. Transportation is greatly improved,” explained JLL’s Ghaznawi. “The vision of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is to make Makkah one of the most advanced cities in the world, which we believe is achievable given the interest and investments in Makkah from Muslims around the world. We expect an uplift in economic activity following these developments.”

For the officials handling the flow of pilgrims into and out of Makkah, the challenges are immense. However, no matter the myriad issues they face, be they economic, political, or religious, one thing is certain: Saudi Arabia’s ruling family will keep spending heavily on projects that showcase the Holy City’s grandeur to the billions of Muslims all around the world.

“The government will continue to see Makkah as a key priority in terms of the Holy Mosque. These investments will continue. The vision of the King and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will drive more investments and growth over the coming years into
Makkah,” concluded Ghaznawi.

However, what this means for Makkah’s natives isn’t as clear. The cost of one square meter of land in the center of the city crossed the SAR2 million mark in 2013 and has continued to rise. While the government has poured tens of billions into building accommodation for the city’s inhabitants, there’s the question of what this transformation means to a city that has changed more in the past 50 years than in the 1,000 years before that.

“The Makkah of my childhood is a memory,” explains Makkah native Mohammed. “We’ve changed. We now have more jobs and more opportunities. This city has always been special and will always be special. It’s not due to the buildings, their scale or their beauty, but rather by the grace of Allah. I remember a story my father told me, of when he met a pilgrim from America. We knew America to be a superpower, with mega cities like New York. My father asked this man how he could be impressed by this small town of ours. The man responded by saying, ‘This is Makkah. Every believer who comes here will never cease to be amazed.’”