As the number of Muslims attending the annual hajj pilgrimage increases every year, Saudi authorities continue their wide-scale expansion of Islam’s holiest city Makkah and the adjacent pilgrimage site.
The vast construction projects began in 2008, when the government began a three-decade, $227-billion plan to revamp Islam’s holiest sites.
The largest single project is the $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion, which will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Ka’bah.
Meanwhile, rail projects are underway to transport vast numbers of pilgrims. Work on the $16.5-billion Makkah Mass Rail Transit, or Makkah Metro, is expected to begin in 2016, Construction Week reported last month.
Additionally, the Haramein High Speed Rail - which will connect Makkah and Madinah - is expected to be finished by the end of 2015.
The urban renewal is necessary, Saudi officials say, to accommodate hajj pilgrims, whose numbers are expected to swell from around 3 million currently to nearly 7 million by 2040. In 1920, fewer than 100,000 went on the pilgrimage.
Efforts are also underway to ensure the safety and comfort of pilgrims. In the past, increasingly large numbers of pilgrims resulted in several deadly stampedes. In 2006, 345 died and hundreds were injured.
To prevent recurrences, authorities are using live crowd analytics software, which can predict where overcrowding is likely to happen, the BBC reported last year.
However, Haroon Moghul, an academic and commentator on Islam and public affairs, said authorities must do more.
“A lot of people want Makkah to remain something like a world heritage site, which I think unfortunately or not is impossible,” he told Al Arabiya News.
“There’s no getting around the fact that you need skyscrapers, you need mass transit. When you have millions of people who want to be in one place, not just in one city... and they’re clamoring to get as close as possible to one point in the middle of a valley, you have a massive infrastructural challenge.”
The renovation efforts have been criticized by some, particularly over the Makkah Royal Hotel Clock Tower complex, a group of skyscrapers next to the Grand Mosque.
“It’s not Makkah. It’s Makkah-hattan. This tower and the lights in it are like Vegas,” Sami Angawi, an architect and hajj devotee, told the Associated Press.
“The truth of the history of Makkah is wiped out... with bulldozers and dynamite. Is this development?”
Moghul said such sentiments expose “two fascinating parallel trends” among Muslims.
“The Muslim world is modernizing, but it’s also remaining religious,” he said. “The fair criticism is that too much of the city is being built for people with money and wealth, and not enough is being done to accommodate the general mass of pilgrims.”
However, Saudi authorities have made efforts to ensure that undertaking the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage remains as affordable as possible.
In addition to the king hosting 1,400 foreign pilgrims this year, authorities have approved 62 companies offering low-cost hajj packages.
As a result, the low-cost hajj program can accommodate 41,000 pilgrims, up from 17,000 in 2013.SHOW MORE