Saudi holy sites to be upgraded

Saudi Arabia's King Fahd has ordered "overall plans" to be drawn up to modernise the holy cities of Makka and Madina after 251 pilgrims died in a stampede on Sunday.

    Death toll in stampede at pillar stoning has increased to 251

    With the annual Hajj still underway, the ruler issued a royal decree covering a 20-year project to be undertaken by a body chaired by Municipal and Rural Affairs Minister Mutaab bin Abd al-Aziz, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said on Monday.
    Makka regional governor Abd al-Majid bin Abd al-Aziz, Madina regional governor Muqran bin Abdul Aziz and Hajj minister Iyad bin Amin Madani would sit on the committee which would "gradually put forward proposals" and could call on expertise from abroad as well as within the kingdom, it said.
    The body would benefit from a "special budget", the decree said without specifying any figure.

    A total of 251 Muslim pilgrims were trampled to death or suffocated and about 240 injured on Sunday, the first of three days of the stoning of Satan ritual marking the end of the pilgrimage to Makka.

    Previous stampedes

    Fourteen pilgrims were killed in a stampede last year during the first day of the same ritual and 35 in 2001, while in 1998 118 were killed and more than 180 hurt at the pillars in the valley of Mina, just outside Makka.

    Mina from the air, where 1000s
    walk for stoning of Satan ritual

    The worst toll of the pilgrimage was in July 1990, when 1426 pilgrims were trampled to death or suffocated in a stampede in a tunnel, also in Mina.
    The modernisation plan was announced after Hajj minister Madani told a post-stampede press conference on Sunday that "all the infrastructure and all the deployment preparations cannot prevent the will of God."

    But he added that the kingdom would "draw the conclusions to revise the organisation of the pilgrimage and improve" services offered to "the guests of God".
    Projects not new

    Such projects are not new and at the end of 1991, Saudi government planners approved the building of a controversial residential and shopping centre on the site of an Ottoman fort at Makka.

    King Fahd's decree covers a
    20-year project 

    It was just one of several mega-schemes underway to improve the holy city.

    The Makka development plan, to be completed over several years, will enable the area to accommodate more than 1.2 million people, compared with under half a million today.

    The plan also envisages an increase in car-parking capacity from today's 585 spaces to a massive 45,000 vehicles, and to expand the pedestrian area from 6000 square meters to 120,000 square metres.

    Traditional souqs (markets) around the Grand Mosque are today scattered over an area of 180,000 square meters. Ultra-modern malls and markets are planned to cover 660,000 square metres.

    Old buildings

    At present, the area around the ring of the Grand Mosque is like a forest of high-rise hotels and residential buildings on top of hills, most constructed decades ago.

    Facilities around the Grand Mosque
    will be improved

    Traffic gridlocks and the plan envisages 40 side roads all leading to the Mosque, in addition to pedestrian tunnels under main streets to facilitate the movement of worshippers.

    There are no gardens around the Mosque at present, but more than 30,000 square metres of parks are to spring up, planted with thousands of trees.
    One of the major projects is the six-billion-riyal ($1.6 billion) Umar mountain, overlooking the Mosque. Several hundred old buildings are due to be cleared.

    Some 120 residential towers, each 20 storeys high, with a total capacity for 100,000 people are planned for the 160,000-square-metre mountain, named after the second Caliph in Islam, Umar bin al-Khattab.

    Major construction companies

    Under another scheme a multi-tower residential and shopping centre will rise from the site of the old Ajyad Hospital, located on the very edge of the mosque. A modern hospital will also be built as part of the centre.
    Three major Saudi construction companies, Makka Construction Co, Bin Ladin Group and Saudi Oger have formed a consortium for the latter project.

    Since King Fahd acceded to the throne in 1982, taking the title of guardian of the two holy sites in 1986, the Saudi government has reported spending more than 100 billion riyals (about $27 billion ) to enlarge the shrines at Makka and Madina.

    The massive expansion has in recent years allowed two million faithful to gather at the Grand Mosque and a million to pray at the Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Madina, which is also overlooked by futuristic tower blocks. 



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