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Mecca residents feel abandoned by Saudi government

(DPA) / 14 April 2007

MECCA - Although billions of dollars are invested in Mecca projects, many of the holy city’s residents say that they feel abandoned by the Saudi government.


They claim that the rulers pool their money into services and projects around the grand mosque of Al Haram to which pilgrims flock all year round, while the rest of the city is largely abandoned.

“Here there is no care for us, or our streets. There is no electricity or water in some areas. Mecca people are forgotten people,” said 27-year-old Sami Al Mouled.

Mecca, 73 kilometres east of Jeddah, is a sacred site for over one billion Muslims worldwide. But despite the pride that Mecca inhabitants manifest for their city being the location of the Kaaba - the cubic building believed to have been built by Abraham as a destination for believers - they say other parts of the city need more attention.

Around the mosque of Al Haram, in the heart of the old city, the Saudi government have been launching renovation and expansion projects aimed at providing better facilities, air-conditioned shopping malls and residential towers for pilgrims. So far, around 50 hotels and modern towers occupy the area.

According to Mecca’s official website, the Al Haram mosque’s northern courtyard is expected to eventually cover around 1.2 million square metres.

In the same area, Abraj Al bait, a multi-billion-dollar tower under construction, which is designed to be the largest building in the world by mass, will have a grand prayer space which is expected to accommodate several thousand visitors.

Roads into the heart of the city are clean and paved. Meanwhile the city is removing all “obstacles” around the area of the Al Haram. Several traditional markets and stores are being closed down and relocated in order to install roads in their place.

Abraj Al Bait itself replaced the Ottoman-era Ajiad fort, which was more than 200 years old. The new tower should house hundreds of thousands of “A-class worshippers” who can afford its luxurious five- stars bedrooms.

In the height of the pilgrimage seasons, hotels overlooking the grand mosque charge an average of 10,000 dollars for 10-days accommodation in regular rooms, according to Naef Ghassal, a travel advisor based in Mecca.

Neighbourhoods around the Kaaba swarm with apparel shops and Muslim accessories. Fast food restaurants are also in abundance, in addition to travel agencies. Sellers hawking prayer mats, beads and religion booklets fill the streets.

Begging for renovation

In contrast and only several kilometres away from Al Haram, some Mecca streets are begging for renovation. As billions of Saudi Riyals are willingly spent in some districts, other streets are completely overlooked despite petitioning by the residents.

According to the local Mecca-based Al Nadwa newspaper, some old streets like Al Bayary is in close proximity to Al Haram but suffers from lack of electricity and water facilities in addition to sewerage problems.

Residents of the area are forced to buy fresh water from profit- making sources who, they claim, exploit their need and sell water at high prices.

In Jabal Abu-Lahab, an area where foreign and Saudi Muslims live, garbage-riddled alleys are what meets the eye. Here can be found dumped vehicles and stray animals, which residents fear for both sanitary and safety reasons.

Deserted houses are also common, which according to Al Nadwa are houses that could be used for crime or by “those weak in souls.”

Arguably, renovating these streets would not cost the state much, but would certainly make a difference in the lives of the residents.

And although authorities promise that money lavished on Al Haram projects is well-spent and will open up thousands of jobs for Mecca residents, Saudis living in this area - youths topping the list - are frustrated.

Al Mouled is one of them. He says that the situation “is getting worse” by the day and that young people are dreaming of leaving the country all together for opportunities elsewhere.

The young Saudi, who studied sales and merchandising, is unemployed like many his age. He explains that “any work in Mecca needs capital and resources, which many young men here do not have.” Government and white-collar jobs require high qualifications and perhaps “nepotism,” he says.

There is no official statistics available, but observers say that unemployment among youth in the city could be as high as 50 per cent. Youths are finding it harder to find jobs or get married at a convenient age.

“Unless you know your way around in the pilgrimage business, your case is lost,” claims Al Mouled who believes that some people ”exploit” pilgrims for money.

Apart from working in the “big pilgrimage business,” and some other trades, Al Mouled and his like only have the choice of working as freelance travel guides during the time of Haj pilgrimage.

A motawef (a pilgrim’s guide) is ideally a self-employed guide who provides pilgrims with accommodation and transportation during the high seasons. But Al Mouled claims that this business is often “corrupted” and only some people “would know what to do and would want to do it.”

Indeed, many pilgrims - especially those who can’t afford the towers and the fancy hotels - depend on the guides for help.

But many of them are deceived and are promised clean hotel rooms, good food and reliable transportation. However, when they come to Mecca, filthy overcrowded studio-like flats and extra charges await them.


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