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    The Holy City of Makkah: Growth, Informal Areas and Urban Identity

    By Theresa M J Abrassart, on 16 January 2017

    Spatial transformations caused by a coterie of social and economic factors have profoundly altered the urban landscape in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. In a lecture held at the Bartlett’s Department Planning Unit (DPU), urban specialist Dr. Muhammad Khadim discussed informal settlements in Makkah and measures to address the challenges posed by their growth.

    In Makkah, a city of 2.2 million, there have been several factors which have caused this urban transformation. Informal settlement growth has been driven by an ever-increasing number of pilgrims (Hajj, Umrah), the city’s constant desire to invest in upgrading the surrounding built environment, and the profit motive spurring the intervention of public and private interests.

    Construction behind the Kaaba © Creative Commons

    Construction behind the Kaaba
    © Creative Commons

    While Makkah’s inhabitants represent over 80 nationalities, there exists a bifurcation amongst the rights and privileges of the Saudi citizenry and foreigners over the urban landscape. According to Dr. Khadim, informal settlements are primarily inhabited by non Saudi nationals, which are also illegal residents of the Kingdom. There are approximately 65 settlements spread across 16 primary locations, consisting of approximately 40% of Makkah’s total population. Researchers contend that roughly 1.5 million people will be living in informal settlements by 2040.

     

    Makkah is a religious city, with approximately 10 million annual visitors. Pilgrims are projected to top 30 million by 2040. Large numbers of pilgrims have remained in the city over the past several decades and constitute a significant proportion of the migrant labour force. These informal laborers, lacking the means to access the formal real estate market are reliant on renting from Saudi nationals providing a financial opportunity for some legal residents.

     

    To accommodate the surge in visitors, mega developments have sprung up across the city specifically around the Kaaba and other religious sites. These projects are exclusive and cater to a socioeconomic segment that is not accessible to informal residents. Lacking adequate planning and thorough municipal oversight these developments rarely adhere to historic spatial configurations.

     

    There has been a distinct lack of initiatives to address the rapid transformation of the urban landscape of informal settlements in Makkah. While a by-law was promulgated by Makkah’s municipality in May 2008, the legal framework falls short of being a well defined and binding legal document.

     

    According to Dr. Khadim, the sole initiative that has sought to deal with informal settlement redevelopment, Jabal Al Sharashef has a number of limitations. Chiefly, the redevelopment plan remains costly and largely inaccessible for existing informal inhabitants. These modern and glitzy constructions are highly occupied and do not assign sufficient space for low-income residents.

     

    To address these issues Dr. Khadim outlined several key points. He contended that the Saudi government should draft a national policy for guiding the upgrading of informal sites and construct a national legal framework for regulating informal settlements. A standardized spatial database for all informal areas should be established, and an improvement in the current redevelopment bylaw should be instituted to make it more binding.

     

    To conclude, Dr. Khadim argued that the redevelopment of informal areas in Makkah should form part of a larger urban regeneration effort. This overall spatial development plan should refer to best practice cases in other parts of the world and align with the recently released Sustainable Development Goals.

    You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here: