In short, pretty goddamn awful.
A glowing green disc hovers high in the sky at night, casting an eerie glow over a forest of minarets, cranes and concrete frames that seem to stretch endlessly into the dusty distance, like a vast field of dominoes. The disc is the largest clockface in the world – and not only does it adorn the tallest clocktower in the world, it also sits atop a building boasting the biggest floor area in the world. Visible 30km away, this is the Abraj al-Bait, which rises like Big Ben on steroids to tower 600m over the holy mosque of Mecca in the spiritual heart of the Islamic world.
This thrusting pastiche palace houses an array of luxury hotels and apartments, perched above a five-storey slab of shopping malls. Completed last year at a cost of $15bn (£9bn), it stands where an Ottoman fortress once stood. A stone citadel built in 1781 to repel bandits, the Ajyad fortress’s demolition sparked an international outcry in 2002, but this was quickly rebuffed by the Saudi Islamic affairs minister. “No one has the right to interfere in what comes under the state’s authority,” he said. “This development is in the interest of all Muslims all over the world.” The fortress wasn’t just swept away – the hill it sat on went, too.
In short, the Saudi Arabian government, enlisting the Dar al Handash architectural firm, is tearing apart the ancient city of Mecca in the name of profit and capitalism.
My first thought; what must all those fearmongers who think Muslims are really scary must be thinking? Does Mitt Romney read this story, look in the mirror, and say, “Damn, they are just like us after all!”?
Well, the similarities are striking. History is being wiped away so that the government can charge obscene prices to stay in Mecca to overwhelmingly poor populations who come to the city for their hajj. In the process, they have been evicting residents of the old city, moving them to shantytowns, and not compensating them. The merchants who sold in the markets there now cannot afford rents. All of this is happening with the number of annual pilgrims expected to reach 17 million by 2025.
So, exploitation, shady dealings, and a lack of ethics, all in the name of turning a great city into a theme park. Sounds mighty familiar, as a New Yorker.