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Optimizing Mecca: Islam, Infrastructure, and Logistics
Under the new Vision 2030 national transformation plan, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks to increase the number of annual pilgrims from eight million to thirty million. If oil has certain limits, then pilgrimage is framed as lasting “forever.” But this exuberant claim of “forever” belies a more subtle transformation unfolding at the level of knowledge, technology, and belonging as Mecca and its crowds are made and re-made into a resource for a national economy. Yet the techno-politics of “the crowd” in Mecca remains a significant political gamble for the Saudi state. Indeed, the hajj was the scene of persistent crowd disasters throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Most of these disasters occurred during the rami al-jamarat or al-rajm ritual, where pilgrims stone representations of the devil. In this paper, I show how a range of knowledges and forms of expertise, compete and collaborate in through the re-building of the new jamarat bridge, a structure that was designed to bring crowd disasters to an end. This paper also examines an attendant logistical technique of crowd optimization (a process known as tafwij) that was to complement the new structure. In this, I am particularly interested in how Islamic law comes to be apprehended and deployed as “optimization” and crowd management “solution.” Ultimately, I argue that these strategies of crowd efficiency work to evacuate the slow, messy, and cosmopolitan logics that undergird the Islamic sanctuary. In Mecca, displacement happens through speed and intensity. This paper relies on two years of ethnographic research (2017-2019) in Mecca with engineers, consultants, tech-workers, entrepreneurs, religious scholars, and pilgrim guides.
Geographic Area
Arabian Peninsula
Saudi Arabia
Sub Area