What Role Did MIT Play in the Third Saudi Expansion of the Grand Mosque?

The expansion project looks to enhance the unobstructed visual access to the holy Kaaba from all directions. (AFP)
The expansion project looks to enhance the unobstructed visual access to the holy Kaaba from all directions. (AFP)

What Role Did MIT Play in the Third Saudi Expansion of the Grand Mosque?

The expansion project looks to enhance the unobstructed visual access to the holy Kaaba from all directions. (AFP)
The expansion project looks to enhance the unobstructed visual access to the holy Kaaba from all directions. (AFP)

In the first series of reports on the third Saudi expansion of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Asharq Al-Awsat delved into the development of the subject with the issuance of the royal decree to form a team of experts comprised of Saudi university professors and other global specialists.

This initiative was undertaken to scrutinize the proposed expansion project in the year 2008.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Higher Education established the aforementioned team, in accordance with the royal decree, tasked with assessing the state of the Grand Mosque during that period.

This assessment encompassed comprehensive studies and on-site surveys.

Additionally, the team undertook the evaluation of the proposed design through a dual-layered review process – one conducted at the local level by the Ministry's team, and the other at the international level by a team from the firm AECOM.

However, there exists a tale narrating the technological vision of the Grand Mosque, developed by a team of professors and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In addition, prominent architects, global consulting firms, and select Saudi universities and institutions took part in formulating architectural concepts and design approaches for the expansion.

They also presented forward-looking perspectives for the future of the Grand Mosque.

In this investigation, Asharq Al-Awsat continues to shed further light on various architectural and design aspects, as well as future visions presented by firms and universities.

The article explores how some of these ideas were harnessed in the development of the chosen design under the royal decrees. Moreover, it delves into the features of the technological systems put forth by MIT.

Despite being allotted just a short span of two months, the architectural innovators, global firms, and local organizations, who were called upon to present their proposals, delivered a diverse range of visionary concepts.

Among them were preliminary ideas and sophisticated architectural approaches, all of which engaged with key aspects of the expansion project.

Subsequently, some of these ideas and approaches were incorporated into the design development, a point we will delve into further.

They, however, shared numerous factors that included enhancing the unobstructed visual access to the holy Kaaba from all directions, expanding the prayer areas while considering an increase in their capacity, and enlarging the Mataf (circumambulation area around the Kaaba) and the Sa’i (the ritual walk between the hills of Safa and Marwah).

The expansion featured a specialized avenue for presenting forward-looking perspectives, with the intention of formulating comprehensive and optimal solutions for the long-term development of the Grand Mosque.

These perspectives were developed with an unconstrained urban approach, aimed at discovering positive impacts in the holistic consideration of the Grand Mosque’s evolving needs for enhancements and extensions, leading to ideal future-oriented solutions.

Seven distinguished global architects, alongside King Saud University, contributed their proposed visions, which revolved around a holistic vision for Makkah’s broader development.

To emphasize the scale of the endeavor by the technical teams, we will highlight the key aspects of the cutting-edge technological vision put forth by a team of over ten professors from MIT.

Their research encompassed the presentation of pertinent and implementable technological systems for the expansion project of the Grand Mosque.

Following the exhaustive efforts of the technical team during the project’s initial phase, involving meticulous and comprehensive studies, conceptualizations, architectural and urban visions, as well as artistic and technological considerations, the outcomes were presented for review to King Abdullah.

The proposal by King Saud University emerged as the most suitable option. Subsequently, on February 21, 2009, Royal Directive No. 1692 was issued, stipulating “the proposed design by King Saud University for the expansion of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, for the Grand Mosque shall serve as the foundational blueprint for initiating the design process.”

“This selection is attributed to its alignment with the existing state of the Grand Mosque... with the understanding that it will undergo further development to align with the developmental, design, and operational visions of the study team, and may subsequently be adopted and executed by the Saudi Binladin Group.”

With that, the first phase of the team’s work on the project was successfully concluded, culminating in the issuance of the aforementioned royal decree.

It is imperative at this juncture to emphasize the team’s relentless effort and dedication to achieving the desired outcomes through a collaborative and integrated approach, executed with the utmost professionalism and in accordance with defined methodologies and frameworks.

The term “team,” which has been referred to by various names in different documents and reports such as “Study Team,” “Core Team,” “Ministry Team,” or “University Team” encompasses all committees and working groups operating under the purview of the Ministry of Higher Education.

Why was the design proposed by King Saud University chosen?

According to Dr. Abdulaziz bin Saad Al-Muqrin, former Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at King Saud University, during the presentation to King Abdullah at the College of Marine Sciences in Jeddah, architectural and future visions were showcased by both global and local consulting firms as well as other colleges.

It was scheduled that each design proposal by the involved team would be summarized in 3-5 minutes.

However, the proposal presented by King Saud University extended to over 20 minutes.

This was due to King Abdullah taking the time to listen to the detailed explanations of the university’s proposal, which was presented by Dr. Abdullah Al-Othman, the university's director.

The detailed presentation highlighted the merits of the proposed design from various perspectives.

The prolonged duration of the review may have been a testament to the emphasis placed on the design's ability to preserve the identity of the Grand Mosque and its integration with past expansions, potentially more so than other designs.

The university reinforced this by presenting its vision for future expansions, illustrating the possibility of continuing future expansions along the same trajectory.

Furthermore, the university’s representatives engaged in discussions with the technical team and subsequently with relevant authorities regarding the nomination of the university’s design idea.

It was considered the most suitable option due to its alignment with previous expansions and its potential for expedited implementation.

A committee comprising the Ministry of Higher Education, the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, and the Saudi Binladin Group was established to formulate recommendations.

The proposed urban and architectural concept from King Saud University was rooted in the notion that the Grand Mosque is not solely a place of prayer, but fundamentally encompasses the Mataf and the Sa’i.

Along with the paramount role of prayer, it is these acts of Tawaf and Sa’i that distinguish this mosque from others, including the Prophet’s Mosque.

Furthermore, it was essential to strike a balance between these core functions while alleviating operational burdens. This entailed elevating safety, security, and spirituality for visitors to the Grand Mosque, and ensuring the sustainability of the mosque as a mega facility. The proposed design approach can be summarized as follows:

The expansion would consist of three separate, somewhat distinct building blocks, each with three levels – ground, first, second, and rooftop – that are interconnected on upper floors. This configuration offers a high degree of operational flexibility based on different occasions and ensures effective crowd management and safety measures.

Integrated within the sides of these blocks are facilities catering to worshippers and prayer, strategically positioned to reduce movement between prayer areas and service zones. Courtyards are interspersed within these blocks to infuse natural light across all levels of the expansion.

Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)


Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.