SAUDI Arabia’s Abraj Kudai was announced to the world with the promise of being the largest hotel the world had ever seen.
Soaring high above the desert of Mecca at a whopping 45 storeys, and boasting a record-beating 10,000 rooms, the $4.5 billion monolith was poised to be the dazzling jewel in the holy city’s crown when it opened next year.
But problems have dogged the grand hotel’s construction, from a deadly crane collapse to accusations of crimes against heritage — and now there are serious questions about its future.
Design plans for the Abraj Kudai were revealed to an impressed world last year. Described by The Guardian as something that could have been designed by a Disneyland imagineer, the colossal hotel consists of 12 towers teetering on a 10-storey podium, spanning 1.4 million square metres in a “desert fortress” style.
The finished product is to include 70 restaurants, a shopping centre and food courts, a bus station, four helipads, a lavish ballroom, conference centre and an unimaginable 10,000 guest rooms.
Five floors will be strictly off-limits to guests, as they will be reserved for the whims of the Saudi royal family. All the buildings will offer four or five star accommodation.
It’s located in the Manafia district, about two kilometres from Mecca’s Grand Mosque, and designed to service the two million pilgrims who flock to the mosque for the annual Hajj.
Designed by the global conglomerate Dar Al-Handasah Group and financed by the Saudi finance minister, the Abraj Kudai will dwarf the current largest hotel in the world, Malaysia’s 7300-room First World Hotel.
‘THESE ARE THE LAST DAYS OF MECCA’
When the design plans for Abraj Kudai were unveiled two years ago, complaints started to roll in.
Observers were concerned about the impact the city-like hotel would have on what many people feared was the ongoing erosion of the heritage of the sacred city of Mecca.
Mecca is already home to the third tallest building in the world, the 600m Abraj al-Bait clock tower, which looms over the Grand Mosque. In nearby Jeddah, the under-construction monolith Jeddah Tower is poised to become the next tallest building in the world.
“The city is turning into Mecca-hattan,” Irfan Al-Alawi, the director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, told The Guardian.
“Everything has been swept away to make way for the incessant march of luxury hotels, which are destroying the sanctity of the place and pricing normal pilgrims out.
“These are the last days of Mecca. The pilgrimage is supposed to be a spartan, simple rite of passage, but it has turned into an experience closer to Las Vegas, which most pilgrims simply can’t afford.”
Ziauddin Sardar, author of Mecca: The Sacred City, warned colossal Saudi developments such as the Abraj Kudai was turning the holy city “into Disneyland”.
He said Saudis had bulldozed the last of the buildings that gave Mecca its architectural distinction, erecting in their wake “a grotesque metropolis” and “architectural bling”.
FUTURE IN DOUBT
This week, serious questions have been raised about whether the Abraj Kudai will even join Saudi Arabia’s ever-growing skyline.
Since last year serious problems have dogged the project’s primary construction partner, The Saudi Binladin Group — one of the kingdom’s largest construction companies, which boasts the King Abdullah Economic City megaproject near Mecca and Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport among its impressive projects.
But on September 11 last year, while construction work was underway on Mecca’s Grand Mosque, one of the company’s cranes collapsed in a storm, killing at least 107 people and injuring more than 400.
In light of the tragedy, the bin Laden family was banned from taking on new projects and made to halt work on current projects, including the Abraj Kudai hotel. Work on Jeddah Tower, another of the company’s projects, also stalled.
The Saudi Binladin Group sacked thousands of workers to avert financial disaster and workers in Jeddah, Mecca and Riyadh, who claimed they hadn’t been paid for months, publicly protested, with one protest ending with a company bus being set alight.
Problems plaguing the company are now being exacerbated by deflated oil prices, which is having an undesired ripple effect across the Saudi economy.
And when the kingdom’s government is tightening its purse strings, major companies with close links to it, such as the Saudi Binladin Group, suffers too, Forbes reports.
With the Saudi economy appearing to be reconstructed and with the future of the Saudi Binladin Group is in doubt, economists now question when the Abraj Kudai project will even realise its potential as the world’s next largest hotel.
Tarik Dogru, assistant professor of hospitality finance and accounting at Boston University School, predicted it wouldn’t be completed until at least 2018.
He told Forbes: “The decision about when and how to complete the Abraj Kudai would depend on the government, and it will probably be an important indication of how a restructured Saudi Arabia economy will look like.”