Picture credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The rise of Arabofuturism

History is being forged in the Middle East

Neon glitters in the acid rain puddles. Sleek floating cars growl past dark towers that reach up towards the smog-choked heavens and dilapidated signs blinking melancholy adverts in East Asian texts out into the uncaring night. That’s the cyberpunk future the media promised us, one dominated by a mixture of the old West and the rising Orient. The science fiction authors behind it missed the future we would actually get.

That future is very different. It is sunny, even heat-choked. It has gleaming towers, wide new roads, high-tech crime fighting, mercenaries from East and West, hordes of bronzed tourists from the repetitive Barratt blocks of Britain and even … camels? This is Arabofuturism, and it lives in places like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The richness of Gulf Arabs has long been a Western stereotype. The “Mecca rich” who flock to London or Paris, designer shopping in hand, sombre abayas set off by glittering jewellery, are a familiar sight in our city centres. The assumption was that this went only one way, that they came here to spend their oil money whilst their lands languished in austere slumber. Maybe Osama Bin Laden’s father made his money building roads in Saudi Arabia, but that was as far as development went. The counter-jihadist columnists popular in the right-wing press after 9/11 used to point out the low number of books published in Arabic as proof of their cultural isolation.

That stereotype has been blown apart over the past decade. Whilst HS2 lumbers on, its further branches ruthlessly pruned away, much of it buried in tunnels to avoid the wrath of rural NIMBYs, all promise dissipated, the Saudis have proposed and are now building an entirely new state-of-the-art city for nine million people. NEOM sounds like something from an architectural student’s fantastical end of year project, but it’s real. 

That Arab ambition has already been made visible in Dubai. Whilst Britain floods reclaimed land to protect birds, Dubai conjured the Palm Islands out of the sea, building an instantly recognisable palm tree shape into the waves and filling it with luxury hotels. Nor is it alone: across Dubai new buildings have sprung up, designed by Western architects but full of vernacular Arab details, like mashrabiya screens. A new style has been conjured into being, combining the flowing curves and minimalism of modernism with geometric Islamic intricacy and detailing.

Nor is this ambition purely aesthetic. As Britain, which built the first civil nuclear plant in 1956, sluggishly lumbers through the courts to build new nuclear power stations, the United Arab Emirates has in just a decade built three Korean-designed nuclear power plants, with a fourth also due to come online soon. Like us, it’s aiming to reach Net Zero, but unlike us it won’t cripple the economy and plunge itself into blackouts to do so.

Whilst London struggles to keep mobs of teens from looting shops on Oxford Street for fun — no doubt to the horror of any visiting Gulf tourists — in Dubai the newest technologies are being deployed to keep the public safe. Choosing from the best of Chinese, American and Russian technology, they’ve built a city-wide facial recognition system linked to resident ID cards and airport customs. Criminals can be spotted and tracked with relative ease. An algorithm even identifies the most dangerous drivers and texts them to remind them to drive safely. The worst offenders: elderly Emiratis, followed by elderly South Asian men. In Dubai, nationality is built into the database. In Britain that would be lawfared to death as being too discriminatory. 

The results speak for themselves. As one travel blogger noted, he could leave his laptop on a cafe table and expect to find it still there when he came back. Try doing that in London. This mix of fun, sun and safety has made places like Dubai a magnet for British tourists, where they can enjoy the amenities of modern civilisation in the Arabian warmth. It’s also attractive to Western expats, including the former soldiers who play important roles in the Emirati military — benefitting from the incredibly low tax rate. 

In fact, around 90 per cent of Dubai’s population are foreigners of one form or another. Yet there is no sign of the issues faced in Britain around immigration. That’s because residency or work visas rarely translate into citizenship. Combined with their monarchical governance, it means that political power always remains with the Emiratis, leaving them free to enjoy the benefits of global immigration without the risks. The kafala immigration system in particular makes visa sponsors responsible for those they bring over, leading to many of them living in large barracks, where their impact on housing or infrastructure is minimised. 

Although this system is open to abuse, the number of workers who continue to come tells its own story: if you play by the rules, the money is good. When you finish, you go home. That stands as a stark contrast to Britain, where immigrants are often allowed to bring along their dependents and can relatively easily get permanent residency or citizenship, allowing them to become political actors, settle into social housing and benefit from our (by global standards) generous welfare system. Nor is our system any less open to abuse, with many immigrants taking dangerous journeys, becoming indebted to criminals or being abused by unscrupulous businesses. There is also abuse the other way, with foreign criminals who prey on natives proving impossible to deport.

Adopting the best from East and West, whilst trying to avoid the negatives, also means cultural change

Adopting the best from East and West, whilst trying to avoid the negatives, also means cultural change. In Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the whole of society is undergoing a massive shift. Not only can women drive, for years seen as the defining issue, but they can work and wear pretty much what they want. The speed of that change has been shocking, as has the lack of backlash. That’s probably because Saudi Arabia has had extensive internet penetration for a long time, which led to a private culture where Saudis watched Korean dramas or Hollywood films in their bedrooms.

With new changes in the law, these Saudis marinated in the juices of modern culture have been released. Other reforms have included reducing subsidies and encouraging Saudis to work. With new freedoms come new responsibilities. The Gulf Arabs know that they can’t rely on oil forever. If they want long-term prosperity, they recognise that they need to join modernity. Whether they can replace high-skilled expats with their own people remains to be seen, as a cosmopolitan Middle East existed and faded away within living memory.

The scale of this Gulf ambition should be an example to an increasingly sclerotic West. With willpower, there are solutions to our problems. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked whether the flood of footballing stars to the Saudi Pro League (which has seen the Cristiano Ronaldo performing Saudi folk dances) was sportswashing, he replied that if it “is going to increase my GDP by one per cent, then we will continue”. If only our own leaders were as growth-oriented.

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