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'Gulf Futurism' Is Killing People

Migrant workers are paying the ultimate price for the <i>Blade Runner</i> fantasies of oil princes.

A digital rendering of the Kingdom Tower jutting out of Jeddah. Screen grab via Youtube

At the end of last month, construction began on the world’s newest tallest building. This 3,281-foot-high spike rising out of the relatively modest plains of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, will be almost twice as tall as the Freedom Tower and reach 590 feet higher than the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The Kingdom Tower—an absurdly vague name, 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 Alwaleed bin Talal (one of the richest men in the Middle East, and the project’s creator) to assert their presence on the world stage. It’s also the zenith in the long line of sci-fi-inspired buildings and rapid transit systems that have come to define Gulf architecture over the past 20 years.

It’s not exactly surprising 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 all its patriotic function, the Kingdom Tower is itself a work of American creation. Designed by Chicago firm Smith Gill, it’s loosely based on plans for an architectural pipe-dream of the seminal Frank Lloyd Wright: a one-mile-high tower called the Illinois. Unfortunately, planners at the site in Saudi Arabia deemed the original 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 originate from Saudi Arabia—sees the project as yet further proof of the way in which 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 thanks to the 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 last month. “I see the trickle-down of wealth... 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. Since November of last year, it’s been reported that 250,000 migrant workers in the country have been arrested and deported under the violation of labor and residency laws, even though "these restrictive laws are part of a labor system that leads to rampant human rights abuses." In February, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to President Obama 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 envelope.

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

Of course, despite all that commotion, it’s inevitable that migrant workers will be employed in the construction of the Kingdom Tower.

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

After calling Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s umbrella company, Kingdom Holdings, leaving three voicemails, 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, and I’ve yet to hear the result of his contemplation.

The Burj Khalifa (Photo via Flickr)

If Dubai’s standards—specifically the treatment of workers during the construction of the Burj Khalifa—are anything to go on, the future seems bleak. In 200, thousands of workers protested before 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 UAE in 2005, and another in 2006 when 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 to give him a vacation. It’s been reported that workers were being paid as little as $4.00 a day, for 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 migrant workers have 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 building works (Photo via)

Perhaps the most shocking story, however, is that among all this development Mecca is being systematically destroyed; the homes of the prophet Muhammad’s wife and grandson have already gone.

In the words of Irfan al Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, the heritage sites are being obliterated to make way for “yet more seven-star hotels.” Fitting, then, that the Kingdom Tower—a bastion of the Saudi luxury goods and services industry—is being viewed by board members 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 dick-swinging contest, with Saudi Arabia and Dubai battling it out while everybody else channels 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. One little girl goes to the hospital and works in the hospital for a day.

“There’s no room for reality and the basic needs of people. 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.”

The promotional video for the Kingdom Tower, highlighting the very, very 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, flimsy and worn under 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 what cost does all this growth have?

While these sci-fi constructions are being built at the expense of construction workers; and migrants with no rights are being exploited to service the wealthy; and its own people are being forced into poverty, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf’s dream of progress remains an illusion. They are truly building castles in the air.

Follow Nathalie Olah on Twitter.