As a child, Osama al-Bar would walk from his home in Mecca past Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, to the market of spice and fabric merchants where his father owned a store. At that time, Mecca was so small, pilgrims could sit at the cube-shaped Kaaba and look out at the serene desert mountains where the Prophet Muhammad once walked.
Now the market and the homes are gone. Monumental luxury hotel towers crowd around the Grand Mosque where the Kaaba is located, dwarfing it. "My father and all the people who lived in Mecca wouldn't recognize it," said al-Bar, now Mecca's mayor.
As Muslims from around the world stream into Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage this week, they come to a city undergoing the biggest transformation in its history. Decades ago, it was a low-built city of centuries-old neighborhoods. But in the mid-2000s, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever with a series of mega-projects that are reshaping Mecca. Old neighborhoods have been erased for hotel towers and malls built right up to the edge of the Grand Mosque. Historic sites significant for Islam have been demolished. Next to the Kaaba soars the world's third tallest skyscraper, topped by a gigantic clock, which is splashed with colored lights at night.
"It's not Mecca. It's Mecca-hattan," said Sami Angawi, an architect who is an outspoken critic of the changes. "The truth of the history of Mecca is wiped out ... with bulldozers and dynamite. Is this development?"
Critics complain the result is stripping the holy city of its spirituality. They also say it is robbing the hajj of its 1,400-year-old message that all Muslims, rich or poor, are equal before God as they perform the rites meant to cleanse them of sin, starting and ending by circling the Kaaba seven times.
Overseeing Mecca is also a key source of prestige for Saudi Arabia's monarchy. The past two kings — the current one, Abdullah, and his predecessor, Fahd — have adopted the further title of "custodian of the two holy mosques" to boost their status, referring to Mecca's Grand Mosque and Muhammad's mosque in nearby Medina.
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.
The $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba. Around half the cost went to buying about 5,800 homes that had to be razed for the expansion, said al-Bar, the Mecca mayor. Domes and pillars dating back to rule by the Ottoman Empire are being pulled down to put up modern facilities.
Another mega-project is Jabal Omar, a hill on the mosque's west side. The hill — a landmark in the city — was levelled and in its place, construction of around 40 towers is under way, mostly for luxury hotels providing some 11,000 rooms.
On the mosque's south side stands the 1,972-foot clock-tower skyscraper, part of a seven-tower complex that was built after tearing down an Ottoman fort on the site.
A four-line metro system is planned for the city, along with a high-speed rail line to the port city of Jiddah, where the area's airport is located, and to Medina.
The Grand Mosque's expansion is being headed by the Saudi Binladin Group. The Binladin family has been close to Al Sauds for decades and runs major building projects around the country. Al-Qaida's late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son disowned by the family in the 1990s.