The Mukaab is Saudi Arabia’s latest bid to change its image
At 400 cubic meters (1312 cubic feet), it would be one of the biggest structures in the world, large enough to contain 20 Empire State Buildings. The walls would feature floor-to-ceiling video screens. And the whole thing would look remarkably similar to the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. It’s the Mukaab, and it’s the latest ambitious architectural plan from Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Muhammed bin Salman and the country’s Public Investment Fund.
Stepping into the Future
The Mukaab is planned to be the cornerstone of New Murabba, “the world’s largest modern downtown,” a 19-square-kilometer (11.8 sq. mi.) addition to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The development calls for 80 entertainment venues, 9,000 hotel rooms, and 104,000 residential units, all within a 15-minute walk. It’s part of a plan to double the size of Riyadh over the next 10 years.
The announcement of New Murabba and the Mukaab follows plans for NEOM, a sprawling megaproject in Saudi Arabia’s northwest that would be 33 times the size of New York City. MBS, as the prince is known, first announced that project in 2017 and followed up with the idea of 105-mile-long city called “The Line” with “zero cars, zero streets, and zero emissions” in 2021.
The overarching goal of projects like these is to diversify the wealth of the Saudi kingdom, which has made its enormous fortunes by controlling 17% of the world’s proven oil reserves. The 37-year-old MBS sees the writing on the wall as the world shifts away from gas-powered vehicles and is attempting to secure the kingdom’s future as a tourism destination, following in the path of neighboring petrostates in the UAE and Qatar.
“Back in the day, you would have negative discussions about Saudi Arabia affiliated to human rights abuses,” Andreas Krieg, research fellow at the King’s College London Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, told CNN. “But now they’re trying to push new narratives of being a country of development and one that can build futuristic cities.”
‘Gateway to Another World’
The Public Investment Fund calls the Mukaab the “world’s first immersive, experiential destination” and says it “will feature innovative technologies to transport you to new worlds.” There will be entertainment, retail, dining, hospitality, and residential spaces. Ever-changing displays on the massive video screens will provide “a gateway to another world.”
The main atrium will house a tower atop a spiral base, featuring 2 million sq. ft. of attractions. The rooftop garden will offer panoramic views of the city. With a projected opening date of 2030, the New Murabba project promises to add more than 330,000 direct and indirect jobs by then. There will be a museum, university of technology and design, a multipurpose immersive theater, an innovation lab, and concert hall, among other attractions.
The Public Investment Fund has not said how it will finance New Murabba or how much it will cost. While it surely hopes to attract foreign direct investment, it will certainly also be using oil money, which accounts for more than 80% of the kingdom’s budget. The fund is footing half the estimated $500 billion bill for NEOM and has estimated assets of $620 billion.
While it’s a bid to attract Westerners, the Mukaab has drawn fire from some corners of the Muslim world. Detractors have criticized the project, likening it to a new Kaaba, referring to the cubic structure in Mecca that Muslims regard as the “House of God” and toward which believers direct their prayers five times daily.
“Building a new Kaaba exclusively devoted to capitalism is a little too on the nose,” journalist Murtaza Hussain tweeted.
MBS drew criticism in 2019 when he walked on the roof of the Kaaba during a visit.
For their part, MBS and the investment fund have emphasized the sustainable aspects of NEOM and New Murabba, saying the latest project will help “make Riyadh one of the 10 most livable cities in the world.”
For better or worse, the Mukaab promises to be the centerpiece of the kingdom’s Vision 2030, a new symbol of what Saudi Arabia aims to be to the world.
“We are confident about the Kingdom’s future. With all the blessings Allah has bestowed on our nation, we cannot help but be optimistic about the decades ahead. We ponder what lies over the horizon rather than worrying about what could be lost,” MBS says in his Vision 2030 message.
We wonder what the kingdom will keep and what it will leave behind.