Final Research Paper: Utopian vs. Dystopian Specters of Mecca and Medina

Rabia Rahim

Utopian vs. Dystopian Specters of Mecca and Medina

Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology



The paper focuses on the binary opposition Utopia versus Dystopia based on the study of Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina. The paper attempts to discuss the Utopian specters of the holy cities as the custodian of Islam and on the other hand attempt to reveal the Dystopian specters of the lived life Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina.



Mecca                                                                          Medina

Source:                                              Source:

Men have to destroy if they want to create anew.

                                                                                -Joseph Goebbels, Michael

Cities mostly fall under criticism when presented as built versions of Leviathan and Mammon. Charting the powers of the bureaucratic machinery under the former concept, while exerting social pressures of money under the latter concept (Zukin, 1995); these dystopic tone representations of  associated with cities is are oftenconcealed by highlighting the utopian elements of culture in any human  the society. In the Saudi holy cities of Mecca and Medina in particular, culture can easily be replaced by religion which lifts up a majority of the cities’ populace from their everyday lives and puts them into the sacred spaces of ritualized pleasures. These sacred spaces invite a distinct architectural display which offers symbols of ‘belonging’, ‘heritage’ and ‘preservation’; thus creating a unique competitive edge for cities through attractive religious tourism (Zukin, 1995).

But the question arises, how much this architectural display is maintaining the utopian essence of religion for the huge Muslim populace coming to Mecca and Medina from all over the world? Because with the above mentioned symbols at work under religious tourism, there is a symbolic economy created which controls the city through the traditional economic factors of land, labor and capital. The manifestation of this concept can be easily observed by the residents or visitors in Mecca and Medina in how the politically empowered members of the monarchic society who are running the State are often opportune enough to control the social and religious encounters of the public through controlling the building and demolishing of stone and concrete public spaces of the cities. The decisions of control also revolve around what should and should not be visible; revealing their use of aesthetic power.

In an attempt to transform Mecca and Medina as modern cities, the symbolic economy appears to be more wildly influenced by monetary aspects and involvement of entrepreneurs, investors and officials to yield real growth results, real estate development, businesses and jobs.

This paper focuses on the two Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina and analyzes their Utopian versus Dystopian specters.

 Personal Account

On my Umrah visit to Saudia Arabia in March 2015, I could not ignore the visible specters of the cities of Mecca and Medina.  Because as for me, and for a majority of Muslims viewing Ka’aba and Masjid-un-Nabwi remains extensively a utopian experience either on television, in photographs, through internet or in publications; therefore the notions of the holy places are determined by these media. The physical shift right in front of the eyes, by being in Mecca and Medina, enhances the experience of pilgrims of witnessing the otherwise dystopic perspectives too about the sacred sites.

But this dystopic exposure cannot be generalized as there are still a majority of pilgrims who remain oblivious to multiple aspects of Mecca and Medina’s lived life. Pilgrims arrive in the city with varied senses and aims, mainly expressed are the willingness to transform into a pure being acceptable to Allah and also to seek His protection against evil and worldly harms. Thus the seeking of afterworld in best possible way remains the overarching purpose. Newborns, toddlers, teenagers, adults, middle aged, and old people, all could be seen throughout the space, reflecting the cultures and aesthetics of their individual homelands. Mecca and Medina appear to serve as a Utopian space for uniting the diversity of cultures under its flag of religion.

The pilgrims eat, pray and share the sacredness with their loved ones, give alms to the less fortunate and resist sleep and rest to enjoy each moment in seeking closeness to their Creator. They witness robust cleanliness, efficient medical attendants, Asian butchers, hundreds of military and undercover servicemen, markets filled with goods and services and least possible conflicts on sectarian issues or problems of theft or terrorism. Thus, this utopian layout let the pilgrims cherish each moment of their once in a lifetime journey to the holy land even after years of returning to their homes. They may have eased into the daily rhythm of lives in home countries oblivious of the city’s dystopic machinery at work back in the pilgrimage cities.

In order to focus on the dystopic machinery of the cities of Mecca and Medina, I would like to refer to ‘Dutch Disease’ inflicting oil economies of countries like Saudia Arab.

 Here, the idea of Dutch Disease arrives




All in all, I wish we had discovered water.

                                                        -Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a former Saudi oil minister


Dutch Disease refers to the unwanted dependency on the resource sector of oil which hampers the development of non-resource sectors like industrial output, human development, education and technology. Saudia Arabia is home to 26% of the world’s total oil reserves. Despite its massive oil and natural gas reserves, strategic location and religious status, it is argued that these strengths have played against the regional stability and development of this imperialist oil economy. To gain a deeper insight into the country’s economy, it would be important to know that before Saudia Arabia’s transformation into a major oil based economy in the early 1950s, the country had a primitive and fragmented economy that struggled to meet the basic needs for survival. The state exploited its status as the custodian of the two Holy Mosques to boost its national income from pilgrimage revenues. The four diverse geographic as well as key economic regions of the country are: the central region (Najd) which was populated by nomadic people in search of water and food due to harsh weather and scarcity of natural resources, the western region (Hijaz) carries the buzzing port of Jeddah and the cities of Mecca and Medina offering a much valued commercial life, the eastern region (Al-Hasa) is home to some of the world’s largest oil companies and oil exporting ports, whereas the southern region of Asir attracts some good rainfall and holds landscape suitable for agricultural activities ( Kayed & Hassan, 2013).

Peter Baofu (2011) has written about the Saudi region by using the t phrases, ‘Arab post-colonial incompetence’ and ‘Western neocolonial imperialism’. He argues that the dutch disease  has disabled Saudi Arabia from transforming itself into a major industrial power. In post-colonial era, the country has long associated with Western powers which care more about the oil resources and the strategic usefulness of the region,  than about the well-being of ordinary Arabs. Baofu (2011) also stresses that many Arab states in the post-colonial era have long used their oil resources for the luxurious comfort of the elites and for the endless military spending sprees (which have much benefited Western military suppliers over the years, especially in regard to the American, British, and French armed sales to the region).

Continued Dystopia in the lands of Mecca and Medina

It was a long and tiring search for a suitable fast food point in the streets of Medina. On settling down on one of the tables, a Pakistani national working as an accountant in a small Saudi firm started conversing from the next table. He seemed eager to share the dullness of everyday life, work and leisure going on in his life there. There was a clear reference in his narrative to what Li Zhang has referred to as the social marginalization and dislocation of the working class in what is known as the ‘rustbelt’. The young man was used to face insult and hypocrisy by his supervisors when asking for fair wages. He was also dissatisfied with his life as a bachelor in the city as he shared the least possible options of recreation or socialization in the city. And also that, towns with single men, mostly living for job purpose, are regularly raided upon by the police to check on any illegal activity of drugs or prostitution; which according to him creates disturbance for innocent young men like him.

In a second incident, as I was eating at a food outlet right outside the gates of Masjid-un-Nabwi, I witnessed a Pakistani middle-aged mosque’s sweeper asking for food from the pilgrims sitting there. I called him and offered food. On being further inquired he shared about his well running garment shop back in his village in Pakistan which he shut off, sold for Rs. 6 lacs and gave the money to buy the utopian dream of working at the Holy mosque in Medina. But he never knew that he will be given a sweeper’s job and now that he is stranded. He earns enough money to send back home but is that all? He feels betrayed by the holy land’s promise of an ‘iron rice bowl’. Unfortunately, these workers have started to interpret their failure as one of their own inabilities to finance and self-enterprise and look for a better future. Thus, there is penetration of a neoliberal popular mindset of expanding capitalism about the self, responsibility, and success/failure among the workers. Therefore probably, we do not witness any large-scale labour protests in Saudia Arabia.

Emerging Architectural Capitalism



Sharon Zukin (1995) in “Whose Culture? Whose City?” has posed three important questions:

  • How do cities use culture as an economic base?
  • How does capitalizing on culture spill over into the privatization and militarization of public space?
  • How the power of culture is related to aesthetics of fear?

These questions are relevant to support the following discussion on the rising architectural capitalism as Dystopic specter in Mecca and Medina.

Saudi imperial messages appear to present this capitalism as modernity. A debatable question is whether we witness modernity on the streets of Mecca and Medina? Gyan Prakash, the urban theorist, refers to the high-culture expression of the city in its streets as modernity. As opposed to Prakash’s definition, Mecca and Medina seem to be the target of world’s largest commercial development schemes with little evidences of high culture expression, owing to the excessive powers of petro-capital.

Over a hundred buildings are under construction around the two Holy mosques, replacing the historical, architectural and socioeconomic landscape of the rapidly ongoing re-constructed cities. There is always a next largest shopping mall, hotel or luxury residential building under way. There are skyscrapers hovering over the mosque, while cranes and smog can be clearly seen above the heads. There are no physical archives of the Prophet’s time left in the central area or close by areas of the two holy mosques. In Mecca and Medina, commercial development is appearing to take precedence over the preservation of the religious historical sites.  Capital gain seems to be shaping the skyline of these cities. The specters of sanctity and reflections of a sacred past have been suppressed under the overhauling projections of wealth and consumerism.

The Saudi government claims that the multi-billion dollar overhaul of Mecca and Medina, and the accompanied measures are necessary to accommodate the increasing numbers of Muslim pilgrims and to enhance hajj and umra services. The questions arises, should this concern be limited to only a two-kilometer radius around the holy mosques, as the rest of the city remains neglected?

Marx wrote insightfully about commodity fetishism, but it was Walter Benjamin who developed this insight into the idea of the phantasmagoria as an allegory of modernity, viewing commodity culture as “a projection—not a reflection—of the economy.” Therefore, if the Saudi government is continuously adding symbols of modernity creating a projection image life of the holy cities, it may turn out to reflect only the experience of urban crisis.

Ziauddin Sardar in his book ‘Mecca: The Sacred City’, has listed down the destruction of sites of immeasurable historical and religious significance in Mecca’s new built environment.  The Bilal mosque, which dates to the Prophet’s (P.B.U.H.) time, is one example. The house belonging to Mohammed’s most revered wife Khadijah (R.A.) is another. The latter is now a public lavatory. The Mecca Royal Clock Tower stands on an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical importance. Saudi clerics want to demolish the Prophet’s house for fear that Muslims could start praying to Mohammed rather than Allah. Sardar points out in his book that if Abu Bakr’s (R.A.) house, Mohammed’s (P.B.U.H.) closest companion and the first caliph of the Muslim empire, is searched for, one will find instead the Makkah Hilton, a garish edifice overlooking Kaaba. The commercial interest of accommodating more and more pilgrims each year seems to be the overarching purpose of development in Mecca and Medina (Marozzi, 2014).

The contractor designed construction projects have gained the ability to absorb tens of thousands of people simultaneously at exorbitant rents but left the roads more like jigsaw puzzles, without parking, revealing poor planning and coordination (Bsheer, 2010).

Critics have questioned the Saudi government’s claims of addressing  the actual needs of an average pilgrim or visitor who cannot afford a hotel room that starts at $700 per night. Above all of this state of affairs, Mecca’s newest landmark, the “Muslim Big Ben”, illustrates much of the spectacular development in the city with its adornment of gold crescent and the central Saudi coat of arms, making it a clock worth $800 million (Bsheer, 2010).


The unique petro-capitalism at work through the symbolic economy of Mecca and Medina has permeated the urban planning and cultural policies of the two Muslim holy cities of Saudia Arab. The excessive and spectacular petro-modern accumulation has distorted many of the utopian religious perspectives and affected the holy practices. Due to which the Islamic universality to which Mecca and Medina are central, can potentially start suffering from divided and conflicted dystopian perspectives among the Muslims.


Zukin (1995). Whose Culture? Whose City? LeGates R. T. & Stout F. (ed.). (2000). The City Reader; pp. 131-142. Routledge. London

KayedHassan. (2013). Islamic Entreprenurship; Routledge

Peter Baofu (2011). Arab Post-Colonial Incompetence and Western Neo-Colonial Imperialism:


Rosie Bhseer (2010). Choking Mecca in the Name of Beauty–and Development (Part I)

Justin Marozzi (2014). Mecca: the greatest paradox of the Islamic world:

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