Saudi Arabia's Changes To Mecca Are 'More Las Vegas' Than Religious, Critics Say

Aerial view of Kaaba at the Grand mosque in Mecca September 13, 2016. Reuters

Saudi Arabia's plans to remodel Mecca will make Islam's holiest place look "more Las Vegas" and less like a religious shrine, critics say.

The Saudi government plans to build a retractable roof over the Kaaba, the sacred cube located in the center of Mecca, to protect pilgrims from the elements, according to a video the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation released to the Independent. The video shows a model of the Muslim holy site with a retractable roof.

The project, which is scheduled to be complete in 2019, has come under fire from critics who say Mecca's remodeling is making it too modern.

"It's not a good idea to put a retractable roof on the site. They have changed its nature, they have taken the spirit out, they are taking the roads of early Muslim life and replacing them with KFC," said Ali Al-ahmed, Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

"It's more Las Vegas than a religious site. They have a great disregard for landmarks, local culture."

Another expert said the retractable roof—the Astrodome of Islam, if you will—is universally unpopular among the devout.

"Practical improvements are obviously needed, but the addition of a retractable cover is naturally controversial," said Amanda Kadlec, a Middle East Analyst with the Rand Corporation. "This is more a matter of modernity in competition with convention at a holy site."

All Muslims worldwide are expecting to perform Hajj, a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, at least once during their lifetime. With that in mind, some Muslims have called for the holy site to be internationalized, or for Saudi Arabia to allow other majority nations to advise on the site's maintenance.

But Saudi officials have called any attempt to internationalize Mecca an "act of war." Mecca is not classified as a Unesco world heritage site, and the Saudi government is free to renovate and remodel at will without flouting international laws.

Renovation work on Mecca began in earnest six years ago.

The Saudi government argues the renovations are necessary to ensure the safety of the millions of religious pilgrims who travel to Mecca each year. Deadly stampedes, tent fires, and other fatal accidents have caused hundreds of deaths in Mecca over the years.

In 2015, for example, more than 2,200 people died in a stampede on a bridge leading to Mecca. Nearly 1,500 were killed in a 1990 stampede.

Construction, however, isn't without its dangers. In 2015, a crane crashed into Mecca's grand mosque, killing 107 people.