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Fairmont Hotels and Resorts’ 76-storey Makkah Clock Royal Tower hotel in Mecca overlooks the Grand Mosque and cube-shaped Kaaba. Closed to non-Muslims, the city poses special challenges for most Canadian firms and other international business. (AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Fairmont Hotels and Resorts’ 76-storey Makkah Clock Royal Tower hotel in Mecca overlooks the Grand Mosque and cube-shaped Kaaba. Closed to non-Muslims, the city poses special challenges for most Canadian firms and other international business. (AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS

Mecca beckons, despite the challenges Add to ...

David Roberts runs businesses he isn’t allowed to see.

That’s because they are in Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, where non-Muslims are turned away. But that doesn’t stop the Canadian-based Fairmont Hotels and Resorts from operating hotels for the millions of pilgrims who pass through the city this time of the year. It just means Mr. Roberts, who oversees the chain’s Middle Eastern operations, has to watch from afar.

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Fairmont operates three hotels in Mecca – including one each under the Raffles and Swissotel brands – in a complex adjacent to the city’s Grand Mosque. The centrepiece, Fairmont’s Makkah Clock Royal Tower, boasts a clock face that can be seen from 17 kilometres away.

“By all accounts, it’s actually beautiful,” Mr. Roberts says.

The 76-storey luxury building has a view of a city that is itself becoming an increasingly lucrative business centre. Mecca, whose economy revolves almost entirely around the annual hajj, managed to avoid the biggest blows of the global economic downturn thanks to rising tourist numbers. Canadian companies are taking advantage of that growth in spite of the city’s religious restrictions.

Many members of Fairmont’s senior leadership team in the region are Muslim, allowing them into Mecca, but the company holds its regional meetings in the adjacent city of Jeddah, a two-hour drive away. Still, Mr. Roberts admits, “it’s an odd feeling” to oversee a business without ever seeing it.

While Montreal’s SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. has been seen its share of controversy lately, it has also found some success in Mecca. In August, the company was awarded a $92-million contract to build a cooling plant that will pump cold air into as many as 14 international hotels. The refreshing air will cool up to 50,000 people during peak tourist seasons as temperatures often soar higher than 40 C.

The proposal manager for SNC-Lavalin’s cooling plant project was Christian, and some engineering and contract work has been done offsite by other non-Muslims. But the international engineering firm says Mecca’s entry rules won’t affect the company’s work.

“We have enough Muslims to deploy to this site who are very well-trained with SNC-Lavalin experience,” says Mohamed Youssef, the engineering firm’s managing director in Abu Dhabi.

Mr. Youssef, who is Muslim, visits the company’s Saudi operations biweekly, including in Mecca, “getting feedback, resolving outstanding issues, and making sure projects follow the SNC-Lavalin standard.”

If operating in a city you can’t enter creates hurdles, developing a sustainable environmental plan for it adds even more layers of complexity. But Toronto’s Moriyama & Teshima Planners pulled it off, and the major components were recently accepted. Mecca’s immense development had ignored the city’s natural environment, causing problems like flooding, company president George Stockton said.

Aided by a few Muslim staff in the city itself, M&T used high-resolution photographs and innovative mapping technology to develop a plan to reduce flooding and capture water. The contrast of the city’s development with its intense natural features stuns Mr. Stockton. “It’s a remarkable place,” he says.

Getting into Mecca, though, is only the first hurdle when you’re in the construction business. As millions of tourists descend on the city, particularly during the annual hajj pilgrimage, construction projects like SNC-Lavalin’s cooling plant are forced into work stoppages.

With the plant planned for just a few hundred metres from Mecca’s Grand Mosque, it’s sometimes impossible to bypass the millions of pilgrims. The hajj is the longest stoppage – two to three weeks – and the holy month of Ramadan usually means about 10 days’ work lost. SNC-Lavalin predicts stoppages will add up to about a month-and-a-half each year.

“We can schedule some activities inside the buildings, but not send materials or equipment. The traffic will not allow for that,” Mr. Youseff says.

SNC-Lavalin hopes to leverage its cooling plant to expand its Saudi operations, including to the nearby city of Medina, which is also open only to Muslims. “Working in Mecca is a challenge,” Mr. Youssef says, but he’s “very pleased” about the project. Now, he says, “we have appetite for more projects in this area.”

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