Saudi claims $100bn mosque expansion works on time
The issue of capacity in Mecca has resurfaced as as construction work has, in some cases, crimped space at the holy sites causing bottlenecks around tightly-packed entrances
Construction projects to expand capacity at Mecca's Grand Mosque and other Islamic holy sites will be completed in about three years, enabling Saudi Arabia to accommodate more pilgrims, Mecca's mayor said.
Osama bin Fadl Al Bar told Reuters that the pilgrimage-related projects were a top state priority and would be finished on time, despite widespread delays in the Saudi construction sector, as the kingdom grapples with the effects of sustained low oil prices.
The total cost of the expansion work, including both land and infrastructure, was expected to be about $100bn.
"All of these projects are being developed to serve our guests and accommodate more of them," said Bar. The projects will be completed by 2020, he said. The new King Abdulaziz International Airport and the Grand Mosque expansion will both be finished in either 2017 or 2018.
Haramain, a high-speed railway linking Mecca and Medina, will be completed by the end of 2016 and will undergo testing before opening to the public in 2017. A final project, a four-km-long tunnel and two metro stations, that will form part of the planned $16.5bn Mecca metro project, will be completed in 2020.
The work comes on top of recent expansion and construction, including dozens of new hotels, the world's biggest clock tower, and expanded access routes across Mecca, which have cost many billions of dollars.
The issue of capacity in Mecca has resurfaced as as construction work has, in some cases, crimped space at the holy sites, causing bottlenecks around tightly packed entrances.
Bar said the impact of the work was mitigated by a decrease in the number of pilgrims coming to Mecca for this year's Hajj, which started on 9 September (Friday). "The negative impact is minor given the (decreased) number of pilgrims, although on the other hand there is also an increase in the number of umrah pilgrims arriving each year," he said.
Saudi Arabia announced plans in June to increase the number of umrah pilgrims coming from abroad, from six million in recent years to 15 million by 2020. Bar estimated that 12 million people from abroad were already expected this year for umrah, which can be performed at any time of year.
According to him, the kingdom has also set a goal of boosting religious tourism as part of its long-term plan to diversify the economy beyond oil, giving it financial incentive to welcome a greater number of pilgrims.
After the work is finished, the Grand Mosque will have a total capacity of 2.2 million worshippers, up from 600,000 currently. Up to 400,000 people per hour will be able to circumnavigate the sacred Kaaba at the centre of the mosque, said Bar.