A recent New York Times story, “Laying Out Cities, Saudis See Window to Modernity,” is unsettling on a number of levels, including the Times’ implication that Saudis are not modern, among other ethnocentric commentary. However, what is most disturbing is the Saudi Government’s trajectory to, in many ways, integrate American suburban designs in its King Abdullah Economic City, a new 65 square-mile development at the edge of the Red Sea projected to be completed by 2012.
More than 20 years ago, China began the “suburban perversion” (a term coined to represent American over-consumption), creating new cities from scratch, and building “special economic zones” where tourists, international business interests, and wealthy Chinese can mingle in casinos, beaches, and fine dining establishments to finish off big business deals. India has recently begun to follow suit. The Saudi Government is largely doing the same with King Abdullah Economic City (save for casinos, as gambling is prohibited in Islam), and is seemingly challenging the economic prowess of Dubai as the international center of the Middle East.
But there’s more to this story than big buildings and beaches. Fair or unfair, Saudi Arabia–an oil giant and one of the wealthiest Muslim majority countries–controls the two holiest places in Islam–Mecca and Medina–and thus is seen by many as one of the world’s most important representatives of Islam. And that is a tragedy in itself, given its gross human rights abuses among other governmental failures. The Saudi Government’s obligation to develop responsibly is real. While they have shown some good will, the latest plan unveiled leaves one underwhelmed, at best.
Its cul-de-sacs, parking garages, and sprawling highways do not reflect the modesty, equity, and eco-consciousness of the Prophet Muhammad. Instead, the proposed King Abdullah Economic City and Saudi development as a whole is aligned with some of the most environmentally damaging and socio-economically divisive development plans perfected by American suburbia, a model where pedestrians are an afterthought and space is dominated by motor vehicles and concrete.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (its official name) is a dynastic monarchy governed under shariah, or more accurately, the Saudi Arabian interpretation of shariah. In many respects, it is looked up to as an example of proper Islamic behavior by Muslims around the world, and its latest development strategy is sending the wrong message to other developing countries with significant Muslim populations. While it may not be completely fair to compare Saudi infrastructure and design to more established economic giants around the world (Korea, Germany), given that the Saudi peninsula was merely sand a few decades ago, we should still expect and demand more.
What do you think of Saudi development? Is it fair to criticize the Saudis more than other Gulf states for example, simply because Mecca and Medina lie inside the country?