Makkah: Vision 2030

Makkah: Vision 2030

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has set out an inspiring future for the Kingdom at a time of global economic volatility. But to fulfill this, a critical step will be to revitalize the holy city of Makkah. Vision 2030 recognizes this. Envisaging the Kingdom as “a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa,” and as “an epicenter of trade and the gateway to the world,” Saudi Arabia’s new roadmap puts the annual Haj pilgrimage at its center.

Arguably, there is room to be even more ambitious, simply because the opportunities are real and growing. Growth in both the size and wealth of the global Muslim population has made the annual Haj and Umrah thriving industries. The growth has been truly exponential. In 1950, only 50,000 people did the Haj. Fifteen years later, 300,000 did so. By 2009, up to 2.5 million pilgrims from 160 countries were taking part each year.

An estimated $2 billion is spent by pilgrims during the Haj. These figures do not even take into account the growth in foreign Umrah visitors, which has tripled over the last decade, reaching 8 million as of 2015. These numbers will only get bigger.

With the number of pilgrims visiting Makkah increasing every year, the urgent need to upgrade the city’s infrastructure, and to improve the overall management of the pilgrimage experience, is no secret. But the potential goes far deeper.

In line with the spirit of Vision 2030, Makkah holds the potential to not simply be the de facto spiritual capital of the Muslim world, as the holiest city for Muslims from all nationalities. Makkah holds the promise of becoming a regional commercial, trading and financial hub for the entire Muslim world.

No other city in the world experiences such a high concentration of such a wide variety of Muslims from all sects and nationalities. Here is the possibility of not simply investing in wide-ranging renovation of the Haj experience to ensure the highest standards of safety and comfort, but of capitalizing on the presence of such a large body of Muslim producers and consumers eager to receive spiritual nourishment.

This has to be a two-way street from which all participants benefit. The Islamic tradition has always encouraged trade and commercial activity when performed in the right ethical spirit, as conducive to the religion’s core values. In this vein, Vision 2030 suggests that the next crucial step in the Kingdom’s journey to becoming a regional and global commercial hub must begin with the revitalization of Makkah.

This requires — as Vision 2030 promises — more investment in public transport, tourist facilities, accommodation and other such services targeted at pilgrims. Leading construction firm Jabal Omar is already building hotel complexes in Makkah to accommodate more pilgrims. Its new partnership with London design firm Foster and Partners, to build accommodation that inculcates “luxury with humility,” is a game-changer.

The holy city holds the promise of becoming a regional commercial, trading and financial hub for the entire Muslim world. The next crucial step in Saudi Arabia’s journey to becoming a regional and global commercial hub must begin with the revitalization of Makkah.

Muddassar Ahmed

Yet the upgrade program also requires investments to build new Makkah-based institutions to facilitate wider intra-Muslim investing and trade. When this is combined with the Kingdom’s ambitions to establish new arts and cultural activities — the establishment of new museums curating the region’s unique Arab and Islamic history — the possibility of restoring Makkah as a complete cultural and commercial capital of the Muslim world will be manifest.

The longstanding experience of the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB) could be drawn on to explore how to open up the economy to global Muslim companies and businesses.

Networks across the Muslim world through the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) can be mobilized to form new partnerships to speed Makkah’s transition into a modern, commercially savvy holy city, operating in mutually enhancing economic relationships with other key Muslim cities. New legal mechanisms will be essential to regulate this process and ensure the Kingdom is able to exert fair taxes on incoming businesses.

Additionally, transitioning away from oil is integral to the Makkah vision. “Based on current projections, the region’s domestic fuel demands could double by 2024,” warns Vicente Lopez Ibor Mayor, founding chairman of one of Europe’s largest solar energy companies, Lightsource Renewable Energy, and a former special adviser to the European Energy Commissioner.

“For countries like Saudi Arabia, that means most of its energy production will be consumed domestically. This could have staggering economic consequences on the national and global levels. According to some estimates, Saudi Arabia could become a net energy importer by 2020-2038 if current consumption rates persist.”

The Kingdom can make Makkah a transnational showpiece of its seriousness about accelerating its domestic clean energy revolution. But this means rapidly rethinking the direction of even existing projects, to ensure, for instance, that infrastructure initiatives are powered by renewable energy sources such as solar power, and public transport is electrified.

This can be seen as the start of an effort to galvanize regional initiatives to promote Islamic banking and financial models. The persistence of slow growth and austerity in the global economy has increased investors’ appetite to explore alternative ways of structuring money and investments, which can create solid returns while mitigating risks and contributing to the public good.

Saudi Arabia has an opportunity that no other country has, or could ever have: Making the city holiest to 2 billion people the center of a new movement for Muslim economic empowerment, clean energy independence and cultural renaissance. By taking such a bold step, the Kingdom would stand in the region as a beacon of prosperity, and an inspiring model for others. There is no time to lose, and everything to gain.

• Muddassar Ahmed is managing partner of Unitas Communications Ltd., a London-based strategic communications consultancy. He tweets at @unitascomms.

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