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Concerns over revamping of Mecca by "outsiders"

Posted by Christopher Shea  December 9, 2008 11:22 AM

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It seemed a sensitive plan to begin with, and it didn't take long for the backlash to arrive. Saudi Arabia has tapped some of the West's leading architects to help refashion the 3.8-million-square-foot mosque complex at the heart of Mecca, Islam's holiest site -- and to build up the surrounding city.

The Haram mosque, Mecca, overflowing with worshipers

Norman Foster, known for designing Beijing's new airport as well as London's so-called Gherkin skyscraper, and the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, who now lives in London, are the two most famous architects hired by the kingdom, according to The Architects' Journal, which broke the news. But a number of other Western firms will be submitting ideas to the kingdom's rulers, perhaps as soon as this month. The goal of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, evidently, is to expand the Grand Mosque of Haram as well as to fully modernize the surrounding area. (It's already punctuated with glass-walled skyscrapers and home to Starbucks franchises; preservationists complain that acres and acres of historic homes have been bulldozed.) Over the next 10 years, The Architects' Journal suggested, the mosque's capacity could expand from 600,000 to three million worshipers, and the Times of London added that as many as 130 new high-rise building will go up by 2012.

The news that the kingdom was turning to Westerners (Hadid is nominally Islamic, though, to judge from interviews, largely secular) has stirred up controversy in Saudi Arabia. Sami Angawi, an expert of Islamic architecture in Mecca and Medina, told the Times he was "surprised and upset" that the all-important project was being handed to "outsiders." Many other Saudis shared his views, he suggested, including people "from very high levels," but most were reluctant to publicly disagree with the king.

"There is a lot of expertise right here in Saudi Arabia," Angawi said. "It is not 50 years ago. We have the knowledge to do this ourselves."

Despite the cosmopolitan sheen added to the holy city in recent years, non-Muslims are still forbidden to enter Mecca. That might raise some complications for Foster, and for numerous other architects and engineers involved in the project.


Foster's "Gherkin"


Hadid's Center for Contemporary Arts, Cincinnati

(Photos: AFP/Getty Images, Businessweek, Mary Ann Sullivan)

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