Pilgrims of a new Arab order

By Mohammad T.

Today, my parents are leaving to Saudi Arabia for a 10-day trip on the hajj, the obligatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. This will be their third (and likely final) hajj. In the course of their three trips — all within the past 10 years — they will have witnessed the transformation of the pilgrimage from an awe-inspiring religious journey to a somewhat-less-inspiring Vegas-esque festival of greed and capitalism.

The last time they visited, they performed the tawaf (the circumambulation of the ka’aba, Islam’s holiest site) under the watchful gaze not just of God, but of the skeleton of Abraj al-Bait. It was under construction then, but is now completed and magnificent. Constructed on the site of the now-demolished Ajyad Fortress — an Ottoman castle built in 1781 to protect the historic Islamic site from vandals — the Abraj al-Bait is now the third-tallest building in the world. With the globe’s largest clock face, it sits in the heart of a massive complex of seven towers, and features within its bowels a five-star hotel operated by Canadian mega-hotel firm Fairmont and a 20-story luxury mall.

Aerial view of Abraj al-Bait, dwarfing Masjid al-Haram, the home of the ka'aba.

Aerial view of Abraj al-Bait, dwarfing Masjid al-Haram, the home of the ka’aba.

To make way for the project, the house of the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadijah, was destroyed and replaced with public bathrooms. The home of the Prophet’s companion, Abu Bakr, is now a Hilton Hotel. The Saudi king commissioned a palace where Abu Bakr’s grandson’s home once stood.

On the other end of the mosque compound will stand the Jabal Omar complex, a massive jungle of 26 hotels, 400 shops, and 500 restaurants. On the north side will eventually stand the $10 billion al-Shamiya complex, which is slated to demolish the most historic part of Mecca’s old city and replace it with an extra 400,000 square meters of prayer halls. There are talks to develop Jabal Khandama, on the hills to the east, which will likely destroy the home where  Muhammad was born.

A rendering of the proposed Jabal Omar project.

A rendering of the proposed Jabal Omar project.

And yet, this is the place where my parents will be traveling to on their holy pilgrimage.

I am sad about it, and sad for the Muslim world in general. While participating in this year’s hajj, my parents will be treated not only to the spiritual power of a group meditation alongside roughly 2 million Muslims from all over the world, but also to never-ending parade of uber-capitalist development that has characterized the supposed resurgence of the Gulf Arab states.

According to Al-Monitor (a news organization of likely dubious quality), the gulf cities of Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi City, and now Jeddah and Mecca have replaced Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad as the ostensible “New Centers of the Arab World.” But what kind of centers?

Abu Dhabi hosts campuses of New York University, the Sarbonne, and INSEAD. It is also

busy constructing a Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum, a Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando and a concert hall by Zaha Hadid.

What of Doha, the capital city of the tiny Gulf nation taking the world (and its migrant workers) by storm?

Doha, home of Qatar Airways and the soon-to-be-opened Hamad International Airport, plays host to top US universities such as Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Weill Cornell Medical College and Carnegie Mellon University, among many others. Doha, the biggest exporter of liquid gas in the world and host of the 2022 World Cup, also hosts an I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, an upcoming Orientalist Art Museum and a national museum designed by Jean Novel.

This is the kind of development meant to replace Nizar Qabbani, Umm Kulthum, the University of Baghdad, and the National Museum of Beirut — the kind of development that would make Canadian hotel management companies, French business schools, and the Ivy Leagues proud. And rich. The kind of development that appears to uplift the whole of the Arab world, but actually lines the pocket only of the ruling Arab oligarchs and their American, British, French, and German patrons.

Left in the cold are Mecca’s poor, forced to live in shantytowns on the outskirts of the holy city; and the Nepalese workers forced into constructing behemoth stadia for Qatar’s World Cup without food or water or a passport to escape; and the starved masses across the Arab world who deserve much more than living in countries that are the playgrounds of the Gulf elites, American contractors, and the proverbial  “international community.” They, like the shuttered home of Khadija, are stepped on under the weigh of the new order that construction-blasts them with Burj al-Arabs and Abraj al-Baits.

The Ajyad Fortress in the background of the Kaaba, in 1889, in the site where Abraj al-Bait now stands.

The Ajyad Fortress in the background of the Kaaba, in 1889, in the site where Abraj al-Bait now stands.

And so my parents are going on their hajj, seeking deliverance from sin through the grace of a benevolent deity who must no doubt look over the Creation despondently, ready to forgive.

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