Saudi Arabia gets a lot of stick from Muslims in general. Whether religious, social, or economic, one is never hard pressed to find criticisms from believers facing the Meccan direction. And although many criticisms have justified grounds, on the following issue, I would like to stand in Saudi's defence.
It regards the claim that Masjid Al Haram has, and is, being turned into a kind of Vegas, saturated with commercialism. On many occasions I have heard returning pilgrims say, "as soon as you come out of the Haram, it's just like, sooo commercial!", and "it's all just capitalism and advertising man!" The alleged problem is that the immediate material and superficial surrounding takes away from the spiritual tranquillity that visitors are supposed to feel at Islam's holiest site.
Now, having never visited Mecca prior to last week, I found these claims quite believable. We are, after all, in a world familiar with the phenomenon of globalisation. Saudis have decent relations with the US, and Mecca is a large, modern city; so sure, that would be the case - an unfortunate case of course - but a reality of the modern world.
So as I visited the House, I anticipated such a reality. I was expecting a Ronald McDonald mascot emerging from neon lights to jump out at me before I could get my back foot out of the Mosque door, but to my surprise, I was met with no such interference. As I looked around the Masjid's immediate surroundings, I thought, 'what's all the fuss about? It's really not that bad'. Sure there were shops but it was hardly Piccadilly Circus.
Of course malls and high-rise hotels exist, but it is not unreasonable that there are such structures in the busiest part of a major city. Malls and shops are a natural evolutionary species of commercial exchange, and trade in the area is far older than even the length of our historical attention on Mecca. Should someone choose to enter a mall, they should expect all the bright lights and material manifestations that it entails. The Saudi elite can hardly be blamed for this. Hypothetically, what they could be blamed for is an external light show of corporate adverts strikingly and necessarily visible from the site's exits. But this is simply not the case. With regards to the criticism of the building of sky scraping hotels - even those built at the loss of certain historical sites - it doesn't seem inherently evil to me that such places are unfortunately sacrificed to accommodate and allow more believers to fulfil an obligatory pillar year by year.
The advertising hype is also a false and unfair exaggeration. On the contrary, Saudis pay noble attention to the style and content of their advertising. In many of their commercial billboards, for example, be it for women's perfume or furniture, they make the unusual choice of having the product itself, and not the 'ideal' female form, the main visual focus of the advert. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for other Arab countries.
My Umrah experience to the House was categorically the greatest, most emotionally concentrated, and heart-softening experience of my life. Thoughts regarding its commercial surrounding never once came to mind, except how much it was lacking from what I had heard. I did not enter any malls or stay in a luxury hotel, not on principle, but because I didn't have the desire to. There were no distractions, no light shows and no Ronald McDonald luring people's kids away. Surely it is down to the responsibility of every believer to remember the purpose of their pilgrimage, and to not be swept into capitalist activities or an unfair critical discourse that really has no binding interference with one's personal visit to the House. As a beloved principle claims: the experience is what you make of it.
Follow Ziad El-Hady on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Philo_Human