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Vulgar luxury malls and 5-star hotels for the super-rich pilgrims are now literally encircling the holiest site in Macca.
But it is not only religious sites that are being ruined.
During this recent visit, I drove to the At-Turaif District in ad-Dir'iyah, some 20 kilometers from Riyadh, once a stunning World Heritage site designated by UNESCO. This location of the first Saudi Dynasty was "undergoing renovation". Read: entire areas of traditional houses and ancient streets, squares and courtyards have been "rearranged"; destroyed. A modern mall has been erected. I was told that soon, more areas will give way to the fake buildings. Al-Turaif District has already been nicknamed the "Beverly Hills of Saudi Arabia."
What's next, nobody knows. But one thing is certain: if the rulers of Saudi Arabia want to attract visitors from the West, Russia, China or Japan, in order to diversify its economy, they'd have to offer a bit more than clogged roads, shopping malls, broken sidewalks and kitschy hotels and restaurants.
Saudi Arabia is extremely rich (although not as rich as Qatar), at least on paper. But it is full of absolute misery, from slums to beggars whose arms were amputated at a young age, so they could evoke the pity of motorists, and generate higher incomes for the mafias that are pimping them.
In many luxury malls, there are sexy, almost pornographic lingerie stores for the upper class wives, while outside, millions of manual workers, mainly from the sub-Continent, Africa and the Philippines, are living in destitution, not unlike that which they left behind in their native lands.
Politically, Saudi Arabia is, together with Israel, the closest ally of the United States.
And it shows. In those proverbial 5-star hotels that cost in Riyadh, double what they do even in Qatar, stereotypical Western 'development-types' are lecturing locals, openly, arrogantly and without any shame.
Visa restrictions have been eased, but mass tourism in the KSA is still hard to imagine. The country is not ready for culture-oriented types, for history connoisseurs, or for people on average budgets.
There is no way of walking here. There is no public transportation to speak of, yet. Even getting a taxi can be an ordeal, as everything is designed for private cars.
The prices are outrageous and the quality of services very, very low. Crime rates high.
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