Would sir care for a truffle with his Haj?
THE pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam, has always involved hardship and sacrifice, whether months spent travelling on foot through barren valleys and sleeping in the open or stripping oneself of earthly trappings.
But now Raffles, which gave thirsty wanderers the Singapore Sling, is opening a luxury hotel in Mecca offering pilgrims a coffee sommelier, a chocolate room where chefs will prepare bespoke pralines and truffles, and a 24-hour butler service.
Undeterred by restrictions on beautifying oneself during the Haj, the hotel will also have segregated gyms, beauty salons, and a spa.
During the Haj, Muslims are expected to forget worldly thoughts and activities and focus on the divine, even dressing in the same manner so that distinctions of wealth and culture are set aside.
Mohammed Arkobi, the general manager of the new hotel, did not explain how its planned amenities complied with the ethos of the Haj.
But he did say that the ''comprehensive range of services'' was designed to meet the needs of the ''discerning'' travellers it was targeting.
Mr Arkobi said the hotel was a three-minute walk from the Grand Mosque, and that a ''spacious outdoor dining terrace'' would provide direct views of it.
It is being developed by the Saudi Binladin Group, one of the largest construction companies in the Arab world, which has also been responsible for the expansion of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.
The company was set up by Mohammed bin Laden, father of Osama, although the family is estranged from its most infamous son.
About 4 million people visit Mecca for Haj each year. Estimates for future numbers vary wildly - from 10 million to 20 million - and Mecca has undergone a dramatic transformation to cope with demand.
One development that will dominate the skyline is the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, operated by international hoteliers Fairmont, a company chaired by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi king's nephew.
The tower will be 577 metres high on completion and its dimensions, including a clockface measuring 40 metres across that will be visible 16 kilometres away, make it five times larger than London's Big Ben.
Mecca's makeover is proving alarming for international activists such as Ali al-Ahmed, the director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs.
''The [House of Saud] want to make Mecca like Dubai; it is a money-making operation,'' Mr Ahmed said, expressing concern that the arrival of luxury brands would increase the price of a pilgrimage.
''By developing Mecca in this way, they are making it inaccessible and unaffordable for the majority of Muslims. It will only be for the elite.''
The city's increasing Westernisation amounted to a ''perversion of the religion'', Mr Ahmed said.
Raffles Mecca is due to open next April.