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Mecca Bingo at the centre of an eighties diplomatic row

  • 10 Jan 12
  • Written by Deena Chance

altWith the release of documents that have been hidden for thirty years, it’s emerged that the opening of the Mecca Bingo chain caused a diplomatic rift with the Middle East. Specifically, the opening of the Mecca Bingo chain caused great offence to the Sunni Mufti of Beirut who branded the name as ‘blasphemous’.

In eye opening new information, released last week, it transpired that despite the Sunni Mufti’s misgiving, the problem was not taken too seriously by the British ambassador to Lebanon at the time. In fact, a further document, which was sent in October 1981 to the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Jeremy Greenstock, detailing the Sunni Mufti’s complaint, also contained the message ‘the silly season has definitely arrived.’ It’s evident from the reactions of the British representatives that no offence was meant by the choosing of the name Mecca for the bingo brand. In fact, the word Mecca is used in English metaphorically all the time such as a football stadium being the Mecca for their fans.

However, Middle East officials seemed to take the naming of the Mecca bingo hall after the holy city of Mecca very seriously and the origins of the story are said to be due to a small piece in the Arab News publication in the May of 1981. The story is said to have reported that the official Saudi Arabia missionary group, the Muslim World League, condemned the naming of the Mecca Bingo chain after the holy city as ‘scandalous’. The documents also claimed that further complaints were lodged by the US Council of Mosques and the Pakistani Embassy.

The situation was able to be controlled and didn’t get out of hand when an agreement was reached. On July 23rd, the British embassy in Jedda, Saudi Arabia received the news of a royal command from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This command stated that the spelling ‘Makkah’ rather than ‘Mecca’ would be adopted for use in all English publications, signs and ads. At this point, things became much more bureaucratic and the International Section of the Research Department spoke with the Permanent Committee on Geographical names for British Official Use. After this discussion, it was agreed that ‘Makkah’ should be used in all correspondence made between Britain and the Saudi state but asserted that in all other circumstances ‘Mecca’ could be used.

The release of these secret documents has been really interesting and allows for diplomatic ruckuses such as this one which may have been completely forgotten to be viewed by all and provide a little light relief. The Mecca Bingo brand has of course gone from strength to strength and is definitely known as Mecca and not Makkah!


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