As the governor of Mecca, Prince Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud has been able to compensate for earlier failings. He came to his role in 2007 from Asir province, where his plans to erect modern tower blocks in the city of Abha were largely unfulfilled. He successfully erased Abha’s quaint old town, with its beehive houses made of wattle, only to replace them with squat breeze-block bungalows. Not a high-rise was to be seen.
Now, on top of what was Mecca’s old city of lattice balconies and riwaqarches, the prince has overseen the Middle East’s largest development project. Skyscrapers soar above Islam’s holiest place, dwarfing the granite Kaaba far below. Diggers flatten hills that were once dotted with the homes of the Prophet’s wives, companions and first caliphs. Motorways radiate out from the vast new shrine. Local magnates are as keen to build as the government. Jabal Omar Development, a consortium of old Meccan families, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to erect two 50-floor towers on the site of the third caliph’s house. Such is the pace that for a time the holy city’s logo was a bulldozer.
Demolition, say officials, is the inevitable price of expansion. In 1950, before it all began, 50,000 pilgrims perambulated round the Kaaba, the heart of the haj ritual. Last year, 7.5m did so. Within three years, the authorities are planning to double that huge number. “There’s no other solution,” says Anas Serafi, an architect and member of the board of Jabal Omar Development. “How else could we absorb millions of pilgrims?” Casualties are a regrettable by-product: in September 2015, the world’s largest mobile crane toppled on the Grand Mosque, killing 107 pilgrims. But two weeks later more than 2,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede, highlighting the dangers of a lack of space.
As Mecca’s custodian, King Salman bin Abdel Aziz sees both his prestige and his pocket benefit from the increasing traffic. Under the government’s transformation plan, revenue from pilgrimages will grow to compete with those from oil. Billions are being spent on railways, parking for 18,000 buses to transport pilgrims and hotels for them to stay in, heavy with gilded chandeliers. The McDonald’s golden arches gleam outside the gates of the Grand Mosque.
So thorough is the erasure that some suspect the Saudi royals are determined to finish a task begun in the 18th century, when from Arabia’s unruly hinterland the Al Saud and allied Bedouin tribes rose up against the Ottomans. Declaring a jihad, they pitted their puritanical strain of Islam, eponymously known as Wahhabism, first against the Empire’s multi-religious rule and then, after its collapse in the first world war, against the peninsula’s other Islamic rites. As part of the campaign of territorial and spiritual unification, called tawhid, they conquered Mecca in 1924.
Critics call this Islamic Maoism. Out went the city’s heterogeneous mix of Maliki, Shafii and Zaydi rites; in came homogenisation under the Wahhabi creed. Alongside the black and white dress they forced on women and men respectively, the new tribal rulers reshaped the urban environment, stripping away the past. They replaced the four pulpits at the foot of the Kaaba, one for each of Sunni Islam’s schools, with a single one, exclusively for Wahhabi preachers. They cleansed the faith of saint-worship, demolishing shrines venerated by Shia and traditional Sunnis alike. Of the city’s scores of holy sites, only the Kaaba survives.
Now that so much is gone, some Meccans are having second thoughts. “We’ve turned our past dating back to Abrahamic times into a petrol station,” grumbles a local. Mr Serafi, the developer, is designing a virtual heritage trail. Maps trace routes through the non-existent old town, highlighting the homes of the first caliphs. His brother has used the profits to create Jeddah’s finest art gallery nearby.
Might the government, under the deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, support an element of restoration? The transformation plan he unveiled last year highlights the kingdom’s tourism potential, and promises billions for heritage projects. In a recent interview, his information minister, Adel Al Toraifi, lambasted “radicals and terrorists” bent on cultural demolition. “Beautiful people and regions filled with culture, music, dances and tradition were all destroyed by political Islam,” he said. Replacing the Kaaba’s lost pulpits might be a good place to start.
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