Makkah and Madinah are seeing unprecedented expansion, with planners focused on serving the millions of pilgrims flocking to the Holy Cities year in and year out. DHUSHYANTHI RAVI reports.
Tipped as the ‘project of the century’, the SR100-billion ($26.6 billion) expansion of the Grand Mosque is the crowning feature of Makkah’s construction landscape as Islam’s holiest city gears up for a monumental transformation to cater to the ever-increasing influx of pilgrims.
The city in the midst of an ongoing boom which has seen vast expanses razed to accommodate huge numbers of mega luxury and mid-scale hotel projects as well as efficient road networks to benefit the milling masses of worshippers that converge on the city every year for the hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.
Lining the many important religious sites, the hotels will serve the growing number of religious tourists in the kingdom, which are expected to rise from 17.5 million recorded last year to between 25 and 30 million in 2025. According to BMI Research’s latest Saudi market overview, an estimated total of 11 hotel projects are at the construction or pre-opening stage in Makkah, comprising four five-star and seven four-star properties. The report adds that this does not account for the unclassified hotel projects that are harder to keep track of.
Massive developments have been taking shape such as the Abraj Kudai, which on completion in 2017 will host the largest hotel in the world, and the Jabal Omar development. A number of leading hotel operators such as Shaza Hotels, AccorHotels and Millennium & Copthorne, Middle East and Africa have also signed up to unveil a portfolio of diverse hospitality ventures in the city.
To ensure streamlined transportation of the surging number of pilgrims, Saudi Arabia initiated the Haramain High-Speed Rail network which will start phased operation next year and the country is poised to launch work on the $8.8-billion Makkah Metro project. Makkah airport is also expected to be expanded while the kingdom has embarked on a major upgrade of four key highways that link Jeddah to Makkah.
In tandem with Makkah, Madinah is seeing major expansion projects that include the Prophet’s Mosque, and is drawing significant investment from hotel groups that are looking to accommodate pilgrims in Islam’s second holiest city. Upon completion in 2040, the capacity of the Prophet’s mosque will be boosted from 600,000 to 1.6 million people. Ninety-five properties and 126 mosques in total will be razed to make way for its expansion, according to the Saudi Gazette.
Grand Mosque expansion
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, recently launched five giant projects that are to be implemented as part of the third expansion of the Grand Mosque.
The Grand Mosque expansion project is part of the ambitious SR100-billion ($26.6 billion) King Abdullah Expansion Project, which consists of three parts: construction of new buildings; expansion and development of courtyards around the mosque, including walkways, tunnels and toilets; and development of service facilities for air-conditioning, electricity and drinking water.
The Ministry of Finance is supervising the expansion project, which is being implemented by the Saudi Binladin Group.
The King Abdullah Expansion project consists of a ring of 12 towers, each of 45 storeys, with 10,000 bedrooms, 70 restaurants, and five rooftop helipads, as well as courtyards, tunnels, buildings for service facilities and the first Ring Road.
The expansion will see the Grand Mosque more than double in area in the first phase. The mosque is being renovated and expanded to accommodate 1.5 million pilgrims at one time in the site’s largest redevelopment in history. The total area of the existing mosque is 356,000 sq m, while the new expansion will add 456,000 sq m.
The second phase includes the development of exterior areas such as rest rooms, tunnels, and other services to ensure the smooth movement of worshippers throughout the site. The third involves a support services area that includes a district cooling plant, a power station, water desalination stations, and other services.
The courtyards of the mosque’s new expansion can hold more than 250,000 pilgrims.
The need to accommodate the increasing inflow of pilgrims has seen the rise of megastructures like the Abraj Al Bait hotel – the world’s fourth tallest building, its 600-m clock tower looming over the Grand Mosque.
Now the city is seeing the development of Abraj Kudai – a mega structure reaching for the skies, which on completion in 2017 will be host the largest hotel in the world.
Work is also under way on the third and fourth phases of the Jabal Omar, an urban regeneration scheme which will provide luxury hotel accommodations managed by major international partners such as Hyatt, Marriott, and Starwood, commercial and retail spaces, car parking, and public amenities. The $3.2-billion mixed-use development, which is taking shape close to the Grand Mosque on 57 acres, features 37 towers with a total built-up area of 2 million sq m, including hospitality, residential, retail, commercial and religious facilities.
The SR2.3-billion ($613 million) Phase Four consists of seven towers with a built-up area of 330,000 sq m to be completed in 42 months. Work is also in progress on the third phase of the development, which involves a total built-up area of 412,000 sq m. It will comprise four hotel towers – including a twin-tower housing two five-star hotels and two other towers featuring three-star facilities – as well as retail and commercial areas. All of the four towers will be operated by Hilton.
Some 60 per cent of the work has been completed on the $719.9-million Phase Three of the project which is financed by the Jabal Omar Development Company (JODC).
Another major development is the Al Naseem project, which is being developed by Al Rajhi Investment Group and built around Al Rajhi Mosque, the second largest after the Grand Mosque.
Located in the southeast of the holy city on the Third Ring Road, this mega project will feature six hotels managed by four international hotel groups offering close to 5,000 rooms in total, as well as a shopping mall.
Some of these hotels will be managed by chains that are entering the city’s huge hospitality market such as Carlson Rezidor, which will open its first property in Makkah – known as Park Inn by Radisson Makkah Al Naseem. The stylish midscale hotel will feature 463 rooms and is scheduled to open its doors to guests in June next year.
AccorHotels has also signed three management agreements with Al Rajhi Investment Group for a cluster of hotel properties in Al Naseem. The cluster comprising Novotel, Adagio and ibis Styles properties will constitute 2,354 rooms, accounting for nearly half of the keys that will be offered at the complex. The hotels are expected to be completed in 2019.
Guests at the 480-key Novotel, 434-key Adagio and 1,440-key ibis Styles will also have direct access to Al Rajhi Mosque.
Al Rajhi Investment has also signed up operators for at least four other hotels in Makkah. These include Shaza Hotels, an independent five-star hotel operator, which has unveiled plans for two new hotels in partnership with the group. The 251-key Shaza Hotel is due to open within a year, while another 205-key hotel currently under development is due to open in 2017.
Al Rajhi Investment has also tied up with Millennium & Copthorne, Middle East and Africa to set up two new hotels in Makkah as well as eight others in other parts of the Saudi Arabia. Due to open in 2017, the 822-key Millennium Hotel and 502-key Copthorne Hotel will both be located along the south eastern boundary of Makkah.
The move follows the signing of four hotels in Knowledge Economic City (KEC) in Madinah.
Among other developments, Saudi-based Jadwa Investment has launched its first real estate fund in Makkah. The Jadwa Al Azizia Real Estate Investment Fund will develop two towers to provide accommodation for pilgrims in the Al Aziza area at a total cost of SR440 million ($117 million). The project is expected to add 900 hotel rooms to the city’s hospitality market.
Meanwhile, in Madinah, the state-owned Public Investment Fund is spearheading the development of the $14.66-billion Dar Al Hijrah launched last year. Being implemented in three phases, the real estate development project will occupy a 1.6-million-sq-m plot and will have 100 towers. Of these, 20 will be used for administrative facilities and 80 will be residential. The development will also include 76 four-star hotels and six five-star hotels accommodating 40,000 people; a 400-bed hospital for which design is currently in progress and scheduled for completion by the end of 2017; and a railway station.
Meanwhile, Saudi-based Elaf Group of Companies has signed an agreement with Amac Investment to manage and operate two new hotels in Madinah – the 158-room Elaf Mashal Al Madina and the 208-key ElafMashal Al Salam (see Elaf to manage two hotels).
Among other developments, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) has signed a contract with a national tourist company to develop Athlib desert resort in the Al Ula region of Madinah. The project covering 50,000 sq m will include 50 villas for families, and a two-storey building containing 60 rooms for groups and individuals. The project will be completed in the next three years. There is a plan to have 530 hospitality rooms in the region in the next five years.
Roads & railways
Billions of dollars are being spent on boosting and upgrading the transport system within as well as linking the holy cities.
A key project in the offing for Makkah is the Makkah Metro. A consortium led by Madrid-based Isolux Corsan is expected to sign a $2.4-billion contract shortly to build Phase One of the metro, having been selected as the preferred bidder for the project last June.
It is expected to complete two lines of the metro with its consortium partners Kolin Construction and Haif Company, by 2019.
The 11.9-km Line B section of the contract involves the construction of three stations, while the 13-km-long Line C section will involve the construction of six stations and two major interchanges stations, said the Spanish company.
Tenders for five work packages on the first phase of the metro were issued last September, according to Ali Abdelfattah, CEO of Makkah Mass Rail Transit Company.
Work is also under way on the 450-km Haramain High Speed Rail, which will carry passengers at speeds of up to 300 km per hour, linking Makkah and Madinah via King Abdullah Economic City, Rabigh, Jeddah, and King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. The travel time between Jeddah and Makkah will be less than half an hour, while the 410-km distance between Jeddah and Madinah will be covered in about two hours. The $9.3-billion network is expected to transport three million passengers a year.
Among the key projects in the roads sector is the upgrade of four highways linking Makkah and Jeddah.
The projects include the Makkah-Jeddah Highway, the Old Makkah-Jeddah Road, the Breman-Hada Al Sham-Makkah Road, and a road for cargo and freight trucks that links the Second Ring Road in Jeddah and Hada Al Jamoum Roadway.