MECCA, Saudi Arabia — As a child, Osama al-Bar would walk from his home past Islam's holiest city of Jiddah, where the area's airport is located, and to Medina.
The Grand Mosque's expansion is being headed by the Saudi Binladin Group, which also built the clock tower. The Binladin family has been close to Al Sauds for decades and runs major building projects around the country. Al-Qaida's late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son disowned by the family in the 1990s.
Speaking at a public forum in Jiddah in May, Nawaf Binladin, whose father is chairman of the conglomerate, said people are constantly asking if all this construction is needed.
"This can be answered in one moment in this image," he said, flashing a picture of tens of thousands of worshippers praying in the street because there was not enough room inside the Grand Mosque.
But many in the audience were not convinced. Saeed al-Ghamdi, a former Saudi diplomat, said he thinks greed is the main motivator.
Muslims around the world have an "intimate bond" with Mecca, he said. "It is not a place for one businessman or one company."
Mecca's planners didn't have to build so close to the Kaaba, overwhelming the around 13-meter-high (13-yard-high) structure, said Irfan al-Alawi, a Saudi who heads the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. The hotels could have been built miles away and transportation improved.
"Already we are losing the spirituality," he said. Pilgrims admire the clock tower instead of "looking at the Kaaba and admiring the house of God."
Essam Kalthoum, managing director of the government-owned Bawabat Makkah Company, which is involved in a number of projects around the city, acknowledged that "it would be a farce" to say financial motivations are not coming into play.
But he said the main goal is to increase space for pilgrims.
Kalthoum showed a gift from a Turkish foundation he had just received: a photo of Mecca from the late 1800s.
"This is painful," he said. "For those of us who witnessed some of this, it brings back memories."
But he pointed to the Kaaba in the photograph. "Because of this place," he said, the old markets and buildings had to go.
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