November 15th, 2010
08:54 AM ET
Editor's Note: CNN Correspondent Nima Elbagir is in Mecca for the Hajj. She brings us this report on how the increasing number of pilgrims to Mecca is causing a billion-dollar construction boom.
I just prayed the evening prayer, the Maghrib, squeezed between a Cinnabon and a Movenpick ice cream kiosk, in an underground shopping mall. The Imam was piped into us over loudspeakers. It took me three days after our arrival in Mecca to pray within the courtyard of the Masjid Al Haraam itself.
This is my first time covering Hajj for CNN and my first actual Hajj pilgrimage and although I've seen the pictures but I was unprepared for the sheer mass of humanity. And even less prepared for how happy most of them seem to be, utterly joyous to have made it here, to have been called by God.
There is a crush of traffic jams and the searing heat. The heat is here to stay but the traffic jams might soon be a thing of the past. The Saudi Arabian authorities have quietly been putting into place the largest reconstruction project in the world.
Unbelievably, given its status as for one of the most visited places on Earth, Mecca itself is only 1200 kilometers squared (about 745 miles squared).
It lies within a narrow corridor between mountain ranges, the "hollow of Mecca." In Abrahamic times when Mecca was first settled, the protection these mountains afforded was one of Mecca’s main attractions.
Today the Saudi government is spending vast sums to blast them into submission.
“This is the largest expansion project to the Grand Mosque in history. It will increase the circumference of the Masjid to 500,000 meters squared. It is the equivalent of two times the size of the current Mosque,” Dr. Usama Al-Bar, the head of Mecca municipality told us.
“The projects, the future ones and the ones currently being undertaking, we're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. We've already spent more then 10 billion dollars.”
The sheer scale of the Mecca development project, has meant that the government is now on the look out to establish public private partnerships to ease some of the financial burden.
And the private sector is more then willing to jump on board.
The Hilton Hotel was the first five star hotel in Mecca twenty years ago and today it has been joined by almost every major hotel group. Shuja Zaidi , the Hilton Hotel Vice President, says this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“Mecca is very, very critical for almost all major hotel global brands because of the size of this place and the never ending forecast because of Mecca itself, there is only one Mecca, it's probably one of the most important markets.”
The reality is, that with the number of hajj pilgrims increasing year on year, the government has little choice but to build, build, build.
By the time this latest construction drive is finished the Masjid Al Haraam will have the capacity to host 3 million worshipers and the government's efforts are not going unnoticed.
“This is my 6th time coming to Mecca, Mohammed Azzana from Nigeria told us. “And I've seen a lot of changes. They have eased a lot of things; transportation, accommodation, feeding, and whatnot.“
But here in Mecca, there is always more to be done. For the Saudi Arabian authorities, hosting "God's guests" is an unending obligation.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.