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Arabian Nightmare

by Orlando Crowcroft on Aug 4, 2010

Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre.
Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre.

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There are very few architects or designers who don’t want to be in Saudi Arabia at the moment – and it is a cruel irony that Sami Angawi is one of them.

The veteran Mecca-born architect recently finished work on his family home in Jeddah, a building that has attracted attention from across the world (US ex-President Jimmy Carter has visited twice), while a new hospital he designed in Saudi Arabia’s coastal hub recently won acclaim from King Abdullah himself.

Yet at a time when firms from across the globe are falling over each other to get into the country, Angawi is doing his best to stay away. He is currently in Egypt, and prefers not to travel home unless he has to.


“I’m trying to go back to Saudi Arabia less and less, even though I have that beautiful house that everybody likes to visit. I’m being isolated,” Angawi told Middle East Architect from Cairo.

“There are things that I would love to do in my country but I am not allowed to. I felt that I had to leave. I was not saying what everybody likes to hear. That’s why I am in Egypt, I’m not on holiday. I am trying to do projects away from my country.”

As founder of the Hajj Research Centre, Angawi has never been one to bury his head in the sand. The centre has been working to preserve the history of Mecca and Medina for more than 25 years, and Angawi has been outspoken in his criticisms of recent development in the cities that are home to Islam’s holiest shrines.

But in 2010, as the “stupid clock tower”, due to become the second tallest building in the world, towers over the Grand Mosque, Angawi feels that he is beaten. Mecca has succumbed to the kind of development that seeks to imitate the flash, glitz and glam of the Gulf, and it seems that there is little that anyone can do about it.

“What is going on in Mecca and Medina is wrong, it’s unsuitable from every aspect. Mecca is a sanctuary, it is not a city. You shouldn’t allow this sort of thing to happen, and anywhere else in the world it would not be allowed,” he said.

“And the clock tower, would you allow that in Rome? Or in the middle of London? Even if somebody now wanted to make Big Ben bigger, you would have all Londoners objecting against it. Now we copy like monkeys, bring our Big Ben tower to be the biggest tower in the world, in Mecca. That makes me angry.”

Angawi believes that imitation is the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia at a time when it is opening its doors to bigger projects and international firms, pointing out that the majority of schemes that are on the boards at the moment have no relationship to the country or its people.


Hajj and Umrah has become a picnic ground for the pilgrims and the development around Ka'ba caters to these people.More


Readers' Comments

Mir Ali (Aug 29, 2012)

Makkah Clock Tower
Hajj and Umrah has become a picnic ground for the pilgrims and the development around Ka'ba caters to these people.More people now perform Umrah compared to Hajj. This ritual has been commercialized and we contribute to it by performing Umrah and Hajj multiple times only to benefit Travel Agents, Airlines and Hotels chains. So, stop going there and they will get the message.

Shazad Azam (Jul 7, 2011) United Kingdom

Clone Towns
I fully agree with Sami Angawi's comments. Any re-development or regeneration of historic cities such as Medina or Mecca, must respect its culture and history. In the UK government bodies are set up to advise on Heritage and Design. All proposals must form part of any local planning strategies. Too often developers are driven by market forces and deliver exactly the same developments everywhere. Often referred to as Clone Towns in the UK. People often feel that such development do not address the culture or history of a place, but infact the development is like a rubber stamp that could by stamped anywhere regardless of location. The Saudi government should appoint designers sympathetic to the location and not the money.

Omar Kashef (Mar 9, 2011)

the clock tower
why compare what is allowed is Saudi Arabia to what is allowed in Rome or London? not being like copycats means getting used to making one's own set of criteria. To beacon the accurate time to the Muslim World is if fact a practical need, the manifestation of this obviously has more negative than positive criticisms. Honouring the future integrity of Muslim shrines will only be guarded by the way we think and discern in a disciplined way. if imitation is the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia at a time when it is opening its doors to bigger projects and international firms, pointing out that the majority of schemes that are on the boards at the moment have no relationship to the country or its people.

Dr. Yasser Mahgoub (Nov 6, 2010)

Arabian Nightmare
I appreciate very much Architect Angawi's enlightened view and his concept of "Al Mizan" or the balanced coexistence of life (or "Al-Muqabasat" for Jaber Ibn Hayan Al Tawheedi). I've seen many "stupid" schemes by "starchitects" for expanding Al Haram. The schemes lack any sense of understanding or appreciation of the place. Just another statement of the "STs"; "first", "biggest", and "tallest" that is typical of the 21st century Gulf cities development. The problem is a "neo-orientalism" attitude, on one hand, coupled with lack of trust in Arab professionals on the other hand. "Oqdat Al Khawaga" who knows what's good for us ... even how we should worship our God!

Abdul Sattar MANGI (Oct 17, 2010)

There is no comparission of Mecca & Madina in the world over. These are holy cities and will be protected by God Almighty.

FYZ (Oct 9, 2010)
Arabian Nightmare
Whilst I agree that the Holy City of Makkah should stand as an icon in its architectural design, and heritage, I very much support the development of the grand clock of Makkah, to beacon the accurate time, to the Muslim World, of Qiblat Al-Muslimeen.

Nedaa Elkadi (Sep 8, 2010)

Arabian Nightmare
It seems that influential investors of Makkah have lost sight of a spiritual holy city. Now they see it only as a holy chicken laying golden eggs. Before Islam, the Kabaa was surrounded by idols of stone. Now it is re-surrounded by new idols of concrete and glass, headed by the massive clock tower, the God of new Gods!!!!

Mustafa Kirwan (Sep 8, 2010)

Urban Planning Guidelines Required in Mecca
I was very much astonished to see that the zoning in Mecca does not protect the scale and urban balance of this historical city and the surrounding area of the Grand Mosque and the Ka'ba and that new towers are being built all around, growing out of proportion and harmony with this holy landmark. Additionally the entrance into Mecca, from Jeddah, is greatly in need of improvement for beautification and safety reasons. With so much wealth and opportunity, it is a shame that better urban planning and regulations are not already in place to guide appropriate development for such a significant destination for Pilgrims now and for future generations who are obliged to visit Mecca. A solid urban framework and design guidelines are what is required to sustain the delicate balance between the preservation of culture, the natural environment and real estate development.

Ubaid (Sep 5, 2010) Saudi Arabia

Makkah doesn't need a landmark, the holy mosque is..
Millions visit Makkah every year to worship in the holy mosque. Building high rises hides the main view people come for, i.e. Ka'ba in the holy masjid. Not only do these kind of buildings hide the beautiful view of haram, but they also divert one's attention. The same is true for Madinah.

David Chaddock (Sep 4, 2010)

Arabian Nightmare
As a 35 year veteran of the Middle East, I fully support Mr Sami Angawi's position. There is absolutely no need for much of the modern construction which lies out of context with the climate and culture. Would a monstrosity like the clock tower in Mecca be allowed in any European city? Absolutely not. Biggest is not best and in many cases is certainly not required. If you see a man walking around shaking his head it may be me expressing disbelief and disappointment at what I see.

liaqat hayat (Aug 7, 2010)

Arabian Nightmare
This is the dilemna being faced by many professionals in Asian countries


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