Why Did bin Salman’s ‘New Murabba’ Project Spark Controversy?

a year ago




Once again, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sparks controversy inside and outside the kingdom with a provocative project that looks like the most important cube-like structure in Saudi Arabia: the Kaaba, bringing to mind the al-Qalis Church incident.

Saudi Arabia is building a gigantic cube in the middle of a new city center in the capital Riyadh, the latest in a long line of curiously-shaped structures and cities planned by the kingdom, MEE reported on February 13.

Shortly before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Abyssinian King Abraha al-Ashram, who was ruling Yemen, built a great building like a church in Sana’a and called it al-Qalis.

The only goal was to replace the Kaaba with al-Qalis and make people revere and glorify it. However, Abraha’s endeavor was disappointed after the Arabs despised the building, which angered the Abyssinian king and pushed him to launch a military campaign in Mecca to demolish the Kaaba. The incident was known to the Arabs as the “Year of the Elephant.”

The campaign ended with the dispatch of the Ababil birds, defeating Abraha and his army; he returned to his kingdom like a chick and then died.

After many centuries, people on social media evoked the idea of al-Qalis, after publishing a promotional advertisement on February 16, 2023, for a Saudi project in Riyadh.

The project bears the name “The New Murabba,” which looks like the Kaaba, and this sparked anger among many social media users.

Following the project announcement, opposition politicians and tweeters launched a scathing attack on bin Salman.


Kaaba Look-Like

Bin Salman’s new project will be implemented in the capital, Riyadh, but the shock was that it included a model similar to the Holy Kaaba, nearly identical.

The project will be located northwest of Riyadh in a 19-square-kilometer area at the intersection of King Salman and King Khalid roads.

It will include 104,000 residential units, 9,000 hotel rooms, over 980,000 square meters of retail space, and 1.4m square meters of office space. According to the press release, the Mukaab central structure will be big enough to hold 20 Empire State buildings, MEE reported.

According to what was reported by the official Saudi Press Agency on February 16, 2023, the project comes in line with the strategy of the Public Investment Fund (the sovereign wealth fund of the kingdom) aimed at contributing to the development of real estate projects and local infrastructure projects.


Hijazi Identity

The new cube is part of the relentless efforts of bin Salman to inaugurate a new Saudi nationalism: a different and unified style; he started implementing his plan with several campaigns related to customs and traditions.

The cube, which the Saudi crown prince wants people to come to individually and in groups, was not the first infringement on the religious identity of the kingdom that he seeks to change its pattern, but rather came within a series of other measures.

These procedures began with the national dress and some ancient relics, and the naming of the renowned Arab coffee as “Saudi,” and now it is the turn of the Islamic religion.

On May 26, 2022, Saudi Islamic Affairs imposed the Najd reading of the Holy Qur’an on all mosques in the kingdom, but some of the kingdom’s scholars objected, including Abdulaziz al-Rayes.

He confirmed during a fatwa on his Ancient Islam website on May 16, 2019, that MBS’s decision contradicts the method of reading that Muslims inherited from the Messenger of Allah (PBUH).

Historically, Saudi Arabia and Najd in particular used to follow this reading until the religious openness that accompanied the “awakening” period at the end of the seventies of the last century.

The Najd reading is a recitation of a specific tune that the people of Najd have been accustomed to for decades. In other words, it is a melodic position that is not one of the seven main well-known stations.

It was geographically linked to the regions of Najd and Diriyah, and the latter was the ancient capital of the first Saudi state; the people of this region became famous for it, which formed the first nucleus of the rule of the House of Saud.

It is noteworthy that on February 22, 2022, a royal decree was issued recognizing that the National Foundation Day (for the first time) is an official holiday celebrated every year to commemorate the beginning of the era of Imam Muhammad bin Saud and his establishment of the first Saudi state.

At the time, the American researcher at the Institute for Arab Gulf States Studies in Washington, Kristine Diwan, commented on bin Salman’s campaign aimed at changing the religious roots of the country, which includes the most important sanctities of Muslims, saying that the Islamic scholar Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab has been erased from Saudi history.

She said this is the new Saudi nationalism. It celebrates the House of Saud, links the people directly to the ruling family, and underestimates the pivotal role that religion played in establishing the state, and bin Salman’s strategy aimed at consolidating nationalism is on its way to prejudice other constants.

On February 1, 2022, the Saudi Shura Council approved a proposal to amend a law related to the national anthem and the flag.

It is not clear whether he will change the components of the flag design, which includes “There is no deity but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” amid an escalating controversy in Saudi society, according to Diwan.

This seems to indicate that the situation is not only related to the protection and preservation of heritage but rather to an urgent Saudi desire to consolidate the centrality of the values of Najd in the Saudi mentality and to guard the ruling regime, not the identity.


Symbols of Allah

Bin Salman’s controversial steps, especially the construction of the Kaaba-like entertainment cube, met objections from Muslim scholars around the world, including the professor of Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, Mohammad Abu Zaid.

He said to Al-Estiklal that “God mentioned in his holy book that whoever holds in honor the symbols of Allah, should come truly from piety of heart, some scholars explain this saying that it is Mecca and the rituals of Hajj, and therefore the establishment of an entertainment cube similar to the honorable Kaaba is an underestimation and a great disregard for God’s words and Muslims’ feelings.”

He added: “We must acknowledge that Mecca, Medina, and the Hijaz lands have their own status, and they are sacred, as they have been the destination of Muslims since a long time ago, and this was approved by the Prophet (PBUH) when he said: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula until I pray only for a Muslim. So does this apply to the rest of the country? Of course not.”

He stressed that “the establishment of an entertainment cube similar to the Kaaba in Riyadh is completely reprehensible, as is the erection of statues there as well, and the idea that it is for entertainment and people come to it is foolish and more dangerous, so the people of this country are singled out by God to serve pilgrims, and the two holiest places in the world, and this is a great honor.”

Abu Zayd concluded his speech by saying: “The scholars of the kingdom and every scholar must explain this to the people and not conceal it because reaching this degree is a great and unacceptable matter. Bin Salman’s suspicious plans reached the Sacred House of God [the Kaaba].”