What they are completing in Mecca


It will soon be one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. Towering over the Grand Mosque in Mecca – Islam’s holiest site, and the destination of millions of Hajj pilgrims every year (last month’s 2.5 million was a record) – the Abraj Al-Bait complex is due to be finished next year and will top out at 595m.The scale of the projectis mind-boggling: the largest floor area of any building on Earth (1.5 million sqm); the world’s highest and largest clocks (at 8om across, nearly five times bigger than Big Ben); and a centrepiece tower that will be the second-tallest building on the planet after the Burj Dubai.

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A seven-star hotel will provide the ultimate in luxury for those about to perform the fifth pillar of Islam, but if you’re a non-Muslim don’t even think about trying to book: the entire city of Mecca – the Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace – is strictly forbidden to non-believers. If you’re in any doubt, road signs leading to the city provide you with helpful exits.
The Abraj Al-Bait has already stirred up a desert storm of controversy within Saudi Arabia. First, because an historic building (the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress) had to be torn down to make way for it; and then because a large number of foreigners, most of them non-Muslim, had to be recruited for its design and construction (even if they did so by law from outside the city).
The project is just one part of a $100 billion redevelopment of Mecca, fed almost exclusively by oil money, and the city now boasts the most expensive real estate in the world.
The Abraj Al-Bait is being constructed by the Saudi Binladin Group, whose chairman, Bakr bin Laden, is the half-brother of the notorious Osama – a man with a rather different interest in skyscrapers.