Mecca's makeover is alarming international activists, such as Ali al-Ahmed, the director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, a thinktank analysing events and issues in the region. Ahmed, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime, said many factors were driving the changes.
By Riazat Butt - The Guardian
The pilgrimage to Mecca has always involved hardship and sacrifice, whether months spent travelling on foot through barren valleys and sleeping in the open with no shelter from the elements or stripping oneself of earthly trappings. But help is at hand for the pilgrim who cannot bear to be without comfort while executing the fifth pillar of Islam.
Raffles, which gave thirsty wanderers the Singapore Sling, is opening a luxury hotel in Mecca offering pilgrims a coffee sommelier, a chocolate room where chefs will prepare bespoke pralines and truffles, and a 24-hour butler service.
Undeterred by restrictions on beautifying oneself during the Hajj, the hotel will also have segregated gyms, beauty parlours, grooming salons and a spa.
There are strict rules regarding personal hygiene and behaviour during the hajj, and forbidden activities include sex, the cutting of hair and nails and the trimming of beards. These bars are lifted once certain rituals are complete, but Muslims are generally expected to forget worldly thoughts and activities and focus on the divine.
Mohammed Arkobi, the general manager of the new hotel, did not explain how a chocolate room and spa would help pilgrims achieve spiritual fulfilment. Nor was he able to comment on how the amenities complied with the ethos of the hajj, which is about simplicity and humility.
But he did say that the "comprehensive range of services" were designed to meet the needs of the "discerning" travellers they were targeting.
"Ultimately, the hotel's sophisticated ambience, our range of features and highly personalised service delivery such as those offered through our 24-hour butler service will help to ensure that our residents' overall experience will be enriching."
Arkobi said the hotel was a three-minute walk away from the Grand Mosque, the Masjid al-Haram, and that a "spacious outdoor dining terrace" would provide direct views of it.
It is being developed by the Saudi Binladin Company, one of the largest construction firms in the Arab world, which has also been responsible for overseeing the expansion of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. The company was set up by Mohammed bin Laden, father of Osama, although the family is now estranged from its most infamous son. READ MORE