By Rafia Zakaria
September 17, 2014
THE wall they were building crushed them when it fell. On Wednesday, Sept 10, six construction workers reported to be of Pakistani and Indian origin were killed under the 15-metre high and 60-metre long edifice being built near the Kaa’ba in the holy city of Makkah. Several others were injured in the accident, which required heavy equipment to extricate the bodies from the rubble. According to a spokesperson from Makkah Civil Defence, the wall is being raised along an under-construction ring road highway designed to allow navigation around the city.
The news of the dead workers did not alarm many. As is the case in most situations involving the largely expendable lives of imported construction workers, a perfunctory inquiry was ordered a few days after the incident and is all too likely to be wrapped up and forgotten soon.
It is no surprise, of course, for as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive in Makkah for Haj, everyone has their own salvation in sight and the welfare of others involved in accommodating their spiritual quest is reduced at best to a collateral concern. This sidelines not just the construction workers who, toiling under a deadline because of the upcoming pilgrimage, get pinned under walls, but also those whose poverty-stricken presence may detract from the unencumbered, pristine spirituality that the Kingdom seeks to offer visitors during this time.
In Makkah’s Al-Nakasa District, nearly 100,000 Myanmar nationals have been ordered to vacate the area to make way for a mass redevelopment initiative. The project will demolish nearly 1,200 buildings in the next several weeks, most of them unlicensed, built by these unwanted expatriates in whatever little spot of land they could find. In the ‘upgrade’ of Makkah intended by its development authorities, there is no room for immigrant hovels, associated with high crime and general unsightliness, that does not accord with the spiritual sanctity most pilgrims expect.
The city’s newly built clock tower, however, does seem to fit into the picture. According to a report published in Arab News, the Makkah Clock Tower, the world’s second tallest tower, 601 metres high with 76 storeys and over 800 suites, will be open for tourists after this Haj season. Well-heeled Muslim pilgrims who come to fulfil their religious duties can reserve rooms in the Clock Tower, which consists of several hotels. Hotel owners report being delighted with the new business the Tower has brought in already; several wealthy patrons reserved rooms there during the holy month of Ramzan so they could fast and pray in luxury while enjoying good views of the Grand Mosque.
The changes to Makkah do not only include the millions of Saudi riyals to be spent on new housing developments, sports centres, and health clubs and luxury hotels. Apart from ‘development’ work, heritage has also suffered as Makkah and Madina have witnessed a massive expansion projects. As numerous media reports have indicated, buildings related to key personalities and events from Islamic history have been demolished and the history associated with them erased. Those historical and religious landmarks that have escaped destruction so far are also under threat of demolition if the current development strategy is pursued. Activists, both Saudi and foreign, have criticised the demolition of historical structures, yet this criticism has had little impact on convincing the Saudi authorities to change their mind.
Seventy-seven per cent of Saudi Arabia’s hospitality industry, a vastly growing portion of the Kingdom’s economy, depends on the cities of Makkah and Madina, and plans for the future involve a huge construction boom, building hotels and tourist attractions in the cities for the pilgrims who arrive every year. In simple terms, whether or not Saudi Arabia manages to retain its immense oil wealth, its control over Islam’s holiest sites is likely to be a sustained and reliable source of revenue for the country. The pilgrims will come and they will buy and they will spend, which means, in turn, that the Saudis will continue to reap profits.
Simple as it seems, the pilgrim and profit mechanism relies on another less talked about phenomenon: the suspension of conscience and surrender to Saudi Arabian ethics that most pilgrims experience once they enter the Kingdom. When those coming to fulfil their pilgrimage duties arrive here, they conflate everything that is permissible in the Kingdom with what is good and right and ethical.
As a consequence, they are loath to criticise, are easily silenced and rendered a pliant mass that will continue to consume without question, and to imagine the Saudi version of purity, hence, as Islamic perfection. In turn, the Saudis are able to erect gaudy clock towers, demolish historical sites and refugee settlements alike and ignore crushed workers, all without it weighing on their conscience or affecting their profit margins.
It is not, of course, simply a consumer-driven consequence, since it depends crucially on the stark imbalance of power that exists between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world. In the case of Pakistanis in particular, whether they are crushed labourers building walls or eager pilgrims clutching their visas, their status in Saudi eyes as lower people and even lesser Muslims leaves them few tools to question the morals of the Kingdom.
But while they may not be able to question or even criticise, they could and should be asked to curtail their consumption, to forego — for the sake of a more seriously considered conscience — visits to clock towers and malls, stays in luxury hotels and to remember that the piety that is the purpose of pilgrimage cannot be attained by visiting the summits of tall buildings.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.