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The Persian Gulf’s ‘Blade Runner’ Obsession Is Killing Migrant Workers

The development of a long line of sci-fi inspired buildings and infrastructure projects imperils poor workers with practically no rights.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

At the end of April, construction began on the world’s newest tallest building. This kilometer-high spike rising out of the relatively modest plains of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia will be nearly twice as tall as the World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower and reach 180 meters higher than the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The Kingdom Tower — an absurdly vague title, but one that at least seems justified for a building this enormous — is a statement of national pride, an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and its Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (one of the richest men in the Middle East, and the project’s creator) to assert its presence on the world stage. It also presents a zenith in the long line of sci-fi inspired buildings and rapid-transit systems that have come to define Persian Gulf architecture over the past 20 years.


It’s no coincidence that cities throughout the Middle East look like they’ve been inspired by a less-dystopian version of the Blade Runner universe. In 2005, the film’s “futurist designer” Syd Mead visited the region and met with Bahraini royal Sheik Abdullah Hamad Khalifa to discuss building projects. And despite the patriotic spirit behind the Kingdom Tower, its blueprint is a work of American creation. Designed by Chicago firm Smith Gill, it’s loosely based on plans for a pipe dream hatched by the seminal architect Frank Lloyd Wright: a one-mile-high tower called the Illinois. Planners in Saudi Arabia deemed Wright’s ambitious height too tall for the relatively unstable terrain of the Red Sea coast.

For some, that’s not the only sense in which the Kingdom Tower is being built on shaky ground. Sophia Al-Maria — a social commentator, artist, and writer whose family originated from Saudi Arabia — regards the project as yet further proof of the way that basic human necessities are being overlooked in the race between Gulf states to out-modernize one another.

Al-Maria coined the term “Gulf futurism,” which has since been used as a byword for the way that a generation, forced indoors because of intense heat, developed a view of the future informed almost exclusively by video games and Hollywood films. However, for Al-Maria, the phrase was originally meant to refer to the way in which human life is being forced to accommodate the rampant growth of consumer and luxury culture in the region.


“My family are Bedouins,” she told me when we met recently. “There’s a lot of discrepancy between what people think when seeing these images of the hyper-modern cities in Gulf states and the reality, which is living in an unhygienic lean-to. Yes, Qatar and Saudi are two of the wealthiest countries in the world, but it’s not evenly distributed even among the local population, let alone [those building the architectural displays of wealth].”

A digital rendering of the Kingdom Tower. (Image via Flickr)

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is notoriously lousy. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported that 250,000 migrant workers in the country have been arrested and deported for violating of labor and residency laws since last November, “despite the fact that these restrictive laws are part of a labor system that leads to rampant human rights abuses.” HRW wrote a letter to President Obama In February urging him to address the issue with King Abdullah during his March visit. Nobody seems to have heard anything since, so I'm assuming he ignored that missive.

In a series of interviews that HRW carried out with those who’d been detained and forced to leave the country, they discovered that migrant workers — which mostly consist of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Nepalese people — had been deprived of food and water. However, due to limits imposed by the government, it’s almost impossible to access those living and working inside the country.

Of course, migrant workers will inevitably be employed in the construction of the Kingdom Tower.


“Every major construction project in Saudi Arabia uses migrant workers,” explained Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the case of the Kingdom Tower, it is exclusively foreign labour.”

I repeatedly tried contacting Kingdom Holdings — Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s umbrella company — leaving three voicemail messages and sending two emails. I’m still unclear as to how the people working on the Kingdom Tower are being protected. My messages were returned once, with the caller telling me that my question would be put to the prince himself for him to contemplate. That was two weeks ago. I have yet to hear the result of his contemplation.

The Burj Khalifa. (Photo via Flickr)

If Dubai’s treatment of workers during the construction of the Burj Khalifa is any indication, the future is bleak. In 2004, thousands of workers protested in front of the Ministry of Labor against the unhygienic conditions in which they were forced to live and work, only to be dispersed by police and threatened with mass deportations.

This was followed by a succession of sporadic protests, culminating in the biggest labor protest in the history of the United Arab Emirates in 2005. The following year, 2,500 workers rioted at the Burj Khalifa site. At least four people died during its construction, and another committed suicide ten months later, jumping from the 147th floor of the building after his boss refused him a holiday. It’s been reported that workers were being paid as little as $4 a day for working 12-hour days, six days a week.


Then there’s the staggering number of lives reportedly lost since work began on the Qatar 2022 World Cup. The Guardian reported earlier this year that more than 500 Indian migrants had died since January 2012, while at least 382 Nepalese workers had died in the same span. Nasser Al Khater, the media and marketing director of the Qatar organizing committee, insisted on Tuesday that no workers had died on World Cup projects. FIFA has nevertheless promised to monitor the situation to ensure that workers’ rights are protected.

The Grand Mosque in Mecca, surrounded by construction projects. (Photo by Meshal Obeidallah)

Perhaps the most shocking story, however, is that development over the years has systematically destroyed Islamic heritage sites. The home of the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and the birthplace of his two grandsons are already gone.

Irfan al-Alawi, the director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has complained that heritage sites are being obliterated to make way for yet more seven-star hotels. It is fitting, then, that Kingdom Holding Company board members view the Kingdom Tower as “a new iconic marker of Jeddah’s historic importance as the traditional gateway” to Mecca.

While architecture focuses on adapting to the inevitable consequences of global warming, the race to build taller and taller seems outdated — a pointless pissing contest among Gulf nations while designers elsewhere channel their energy into legitimate innovation.

“Probably 90 percent of corporate videos encouraging investors to the Gulf take you on a journey from the past to the future,” Al-Maria told me. “There’s also one children’s television show where these kids get on a monorail in the modern day, they travel through a lab and are teleported to 2030. They come out the other side and there are even bigger buildings and the train is flying through the air.”


“There’s no room for reality and the basic needs of people,” she went on. “For example, young love in the Gulf is so mediated by technology; everything is covert and conducted via phone. And then there’s the artificiality of the landscape — every tree is planted, nothing happens by chance. But when you go out to the desert, it rains, and overnight it’s completely green with little yellow and purple flowers. This sense of dystopia rising comes from being disconnected to the land.”

A promotional video for the Kingdom Tower, which highlights its ridiculously high viewing platform.

Nothing could be further from the land than the Kingdom Tower’s viewing platform, its luxury condos, and its Four Seasons Hotel, which will take up a large portion of the building. From its marketing video we admire the view from a clapped-out fishing boat, looking flimsy and worn beneath the tower’s gleaming magnificence — the producers’ best way to scream, “Look how far we’ve come!” without plastering it across the screen in size 42 glitter text.

But this growth comes at what cost?

These sci-fi constructions are being built by migrants with no rights that are being exploited to serve the wealthy. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf’s dream of progress remains an illusion — a dream that is truly built on sand.