But women activists in the kingdom, the birthplace of the religion and where a strict interpretation of Islam is imposed, say the idea is discriminatory and have vowed to oppose it.

At present, women can pray in the immediate vicinity of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure inside the mosque, believed to have been built by Ibrahim (Abraham) - seen by Muslims as a prophet - and his son. 

Muslims walk around this seven times according to rites first established by Ibrahim and re-established by Prophet Muhammad.

Plans by the all-male committee overseeing the holy sites would place women in a distant section of the mosque while men would still be able to pray in the key space.

Not final

Osama al-Bar, head of the Institute for Haj Research, said: "The area is very small and so crowded. So we decided to get women out of the sahn [Kaaba area] to a better place where they can see the Kaaba and have more space.

"Some women thought it wasn't good, but from our point of view it will be better for them ... We can sit with them and explain to them what the decision is."

Tens of thousands crowd the
mosque during haj

The decision is not final, he said, and could be reversed.

Pushing and shoving is common in the tight space around the Kaaba where thousands of pilgrims crowd mainly during haj.

Worshippers can walk round the Kaaba at any other time as well.

The plans are likely to provoke a furore among Muslim women in countries whose traditions are less strict.

Muslims say it is a basic right to be able to pray as close as possible to the Kaaba.

It is towards the Kaaba that Muslims around the world turn when praying.

'Discrimination'
 
Suhaila Hammad, a Saudi woman member of a body of world Muslim scholars, said: "Both men and women have the right to pray in the House of God. Men have no right to take it away.

"Both men and women have the right to pray in the 'House of God'. Men have no right to take it away"

Suhaila Hammad,
Saudi scholar

"Men and women mix when they circumambulate the Kaaba, so do they want to make us do that somewhere else too?

"This is discrimination against women."

The Grand Mosque is one of the few places where men and women pray together, although technically there are separate spaces for each gender throughout the vast complex.

Religious police charged with imposing order ensure that women do not pray outside the prescribed areas.

Hatoun al-Fassi, a historian, said the move to restrict women's prayer in the mosque would be a first in Islamic history.

"Perhaps they want women to disappear from any public prayer area and when it comes to the holy mosques that's their ultimate aim," she said.

She said that the religious authorities have already restricted women's access at Prophet Muhammad's burial place in Madina.