The Blog

Saudi Arabia: Burger Bars, Sky Scrapers and a Whole Lot of Lost History

It's no secret that relics of Islam's history have been deliberately targeted and destroyed in Saudi Arabia, especially in Mecca and Medina, but very little is often said about the underlying cause of the destruction.

While the Saudis cite self-sacrificing justification of the destruction to increase capacity to accommodate more pilgrims, the truth is, the destruction of Islamic heritage is not a contemporary phenomenon. It's deeply rooted in the Wahhabi - Al Saud nexus. With the former endowing the latter with a religious legitimacy that is deeply sectarian and primitive and the latter instituting Wahhabism in the pursuit of wealth and power with impunity.

This summer I had the opportunity to stay in Saudi Arabia and visit Mecca and Medina, the places I longed to visit since childhood. As much as I felt blessed at the prospect of stepping in the footsteps of Islam's nobles, in reality what I saw there was lamentable.

The sky's the limit

The rapid pace of globalisation and the modernisation that accompanies it hasn't spared two of the holiest cities in Islam. Leading to the decimation of spirituality and culture.

My journey started with a trip to Mecca to perform the Umrah, the mini pilgrimage. On arrival, the skyline is now dominated by the Clock Tower - impressive in scale - but aesthetically and architecturally offensive. So imposing that it overshadows the Kaaba itself.

The Saudis, so pleased with their creation and all it harbours, which is American hotels and sheer consumerism, now takes pride of place behind the Kaaba on prayer mats. Prior to the Clock Tower was a centuries old Ottoman fortress.

Mecca is now a modern day metropolis and the epitome of the atavism that was fought against by the Prophet Mohammad. Central to the early Islamic mission and to the holy pilgrimage is the connection to nature. A key feature of spiritual revival was the importance of the desert and how it opens the human mind to observance and meditation.

Today, there is no desert or mountainous terrain surrounding the Grand Mosque. The mosque today is surrounded by luxury, elitism and capitalism. A Rolex shop opposite the main entrance to the mosque has been thrown in for good measure and for those feeling peckish, a KFC is only a few feet away. If KFC doesn't tickle those taste buds, McDonalds and Burger King are close by.

The Hilton hotel now stands on the house of Islam's first Caliph, Abu Baker. Another hotel has been built over the home of Hamza, the Prophet's uncle. A dome to mark the well of the Zamzam water, the first Islamic school and the home of Islam's first lady, Khadijah were just some of the relics bulldozed over to expand the Grand Mosque and make way for the mishmash of skyscrapers that run amok in the city.


At first sight Medina was everything Mecca wasn't, quiet and peaceful. A closer inspection revealed that not even Medina was exempt from globalisation. Shops and hotels like Mecca surround the Masjid al-Nabawi.

I felt at ease there until under the guise of a mosque tour we were ushered into an all female room, overwhelmed with refreshments while being told to 'perfect' our Islam based on the 'true' teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. A man who believed in showing no respect for the dead and the destruction of holy places, where he felt idolatry were being practiced. Hence, why no church remains in Saudi Arabia and even Islam's landmarks, including mosques were targeted. For this reason the grave of the Prophet and the green dome that marks it is under threat by the government.

The Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard next to the mosque, where Islam's early day notables are buried and their graves once marked with mausoleums and tombs were levelled to the ground by the Saudis. Although, the site has not been built over, it remains closed and only accessible to men.

It's evident that financial gain coupled with a skewed interpretation of Islam is driving the desecration. In doing so they have erased the collective history of the global Muslim community.

Forgotten History

I visited Balad, an area dating back to pre-Islamic civilisation in Jeddah. The most interesting and authentic place I'd seen. Filled with old traditional Arabian style buildings, which are now in ruins due to the neglect despite the area being a UNESCO world heritage site. An area I wondered in awe of the olden day tower blocks adorned with colourful wooden features now in decay.

Typically an old labyrinth made up of dusty and narrow streets with the smell of incense smouldering in the stifling air. The atmosphere was lively with men mostly from Yemen, the Indian sub-continent and Egypt dressed in their traditional garb welcoming people into their shops. The only area where I experienced history, culture and found traditional Arabic food. Reminded me of what I should of felt in Mecca and Medina.