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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.