x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Towering challenge to Mecca's slum dwellers

Mecca's poorest fear they will be evicted and left homeless, as the government builds towers and malls to accommodate Haj pilgrims.

The Omar mountain development projects (right) sit beside a slum area in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.GO WITH AFP STORY BY LYNNE NAHHASAn aerial view dated October 27, 2012 shows the Omar mountain development projects (R) next to a slum area in the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Close to Mecca's Grand Mosque and the glitzy 5-star hotels surrounding it lie slums whose mostly immigrant dwellers fear they will be evicted to make way for new high rises and malls. AFP PHOTO / STR *** Local Caption *** 874913-01-08.jpg
The Omar mountain development projects (right) sit beside a slum area in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.GO WITH AFP STORY BY LYNNE NAHHASAn aerial view dated October 27, 2012 shows the Omar mountain development projects (R) next to a slum area in the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Close to Mecca's Grand Mosque and the glitzy 5-star hotels surrounding it lie slums whose mostly immigrant dwellers fear they will be evicted to make way for new high rises and malls. AFP PHOTO / STR *** Local Caption *** 874913-01-08.jpg

MECCA // Close to Mecca's Grand Mosque and the five-star hotels surrounding it, lie slums whose mostly immigrant dwellers fear they will be evicted to make way for new towers and malls.

In Jabal Omar, the impoverished neighbourhoods are divided by nationality, with the Yemeni quarter at the bottom of the hill, then the Africans and at the top, the Burmese, residents say.

"I first arrived here from Yemen when I was 15 years old," said Abu Ali, 58. "I used to work as a plumber, but now that I've grown old and weak I work as a janitor."

Despite the squalid conditions, "I'm better off here than I would be in Yemen", said Mr Ali.

Further up the hill dotted with piles of rubbish, Mohammed Saleh, 24, sits on a step talking with friends. "I couldn't continue my studies after my father got cancer," said Mr Saleh, a Yemeni born and raised on Jabal Omar. "I'm happy here." Mr Saleh said many of the people living on Jabal Omar have been there "for 40 and 50 years. They are used to it ... They could live nowhere else".

The residents of this and other poor areas in Mecca fear one thing: a plan to demolish the whole area to give way to modern developments.

"I rent the house I'm living in now for 1,000 riyals [Dh980]," said Mr Ali. "If it's gone, I wouldn't be able to find another apartment for less than 2,000 riyals. That's my whole salary."

Osama Albar, the mayor of Mecca, has said the slum development project will cost about 11.25 billion riyals and will take place in phases.

It will offer homeowners living in these shabby, hilly neighbourhoods a choice of either selling their properties to the government or taking shares in the projects. People who have rented apartments there will also be offered help to find flats at prices similar to what they now pay.

Near the Grand Mosque, the government has for years been expanding facilities to accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims for the Haj. The ancient mud-brick buildings have given way to skyscrapers.

The Mecca Development Authority's website said the slums in the city "create a security, environmental and health challenge".

In Mecca, about 70 slums make up 25 per cent of the city's urban area.

Jabal Omar Development Company said it is developing a 230,000 square metre project, of which 52 per cent will be dedicated to residential buildings. The development, which also features towers and shops, lies across from the Grand Mosque's plaza.

* Agence France-Presse