Mecca’s had a makeover. The city towards which Muslims have been praying for over 1,400 years has a new focal point. Seven skyscrapers now surround its Grand Mosque, and at their centre stands a clock tower similar to Big Ben, only six times bigger and eight million LEDs brighter. Countless balconies now overlook Islam’s sanctum sanctorum, while an air-conditioned shopping mall sprawls across the lower levels of the complex. Open idolatry in Saudi Arabia remains inadvisable – beheadable, indeed – but Mammon at last has its own shrine.
The buildings’ spiritual costs might be imponderable but their $15 billion price tag required fund-raising. And whereas Saudi tycoons in previous years had often been happy to issue bonds and borrow on interest, the developers this time decided to respect the Koran’s warnings against usury and speculation – with the