Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) recently astounded us with his view for the Kingdom bearing his family name. Vision 2030 entails many things, including a surprising openness to arts and culture. Anything seemingly goes: from techno parties and professional wrestling to a warm welcome to the world’s movie makers at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.
The “new” Saudi Kingdom aims to seduce everyone: Arabs and foreigners, opponents and loyalists alike. The lust for money outweighs all temptations, yet we may still question some those who “profit” from this newfound Saudi openness.
For instance, it is apparently not an issue for two Syrian singers to share the same stage to perform a song in front of Turki Al Al Sheikh, Chairman of the Saudi General Authority for Entertainment, even though the artists, Asala and George Wassouf, are on opposing sides of the political divide.
But what concerns us here has little to do with Saudi entertainment or the Saudi desire to acquire European sports teams. We want to focus on some of the massive edifices MBS plans to construct as the new facade of the old Kingdom.
Saudi urbanism, long known for its love for highrise and shopping malls, has already transformed the Great Mosque in Mecca into something out of a science fiction movie. A huge complex of towering hotels is today overlooking the historic Kaaba, which as a result appears small and insignificant.
These buildings were constructed before MBS became Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the Saudi Kingdom in 2017. Yet, perhaps they set the tone for things to come. The structures launched by MBA reflect wealth, grandeur and, to say the least, a very futuristic take on urban development.
With MBS’ rise to power came a set of political and economic aspirations to the front that the nation has never seen. With MBS came Vision 2030” “an ambitious vision for an ambitious nation.”
Vision 2030 is a blueprint that aims to transform the Saudi Kingdom and diversify its economy. One key element is to create a thriving society through entertainment, sport and urbanism.
MBS, with his flimsy rhetoric, has already dubbed Vision 2030 a “success story.” Never mind, it is clearly called “vision.” A vision that has all the features of a “sales pitch,” proposed and approved by the 37-year-old royal.
Interestingly, one of MBS’ first acts as a sovereign in 2017 was to grant Saudi citizenship to a robot named Sophia. She was a world’s first, and this arguably shows MBS’ love for all things futuristic or even all-out fantastic.
As said, urbanism is a major pillar of Vision 2030 to create a new society and some of the constructions MBS announced have left us perplexed. Not only because they radiate strength and prestige, but also simply because of their shape. Either MBS is inspired by science fiction or the architects surrounding him have disregarded the most basic principles of urban planning.
Take the latest megaproject presented by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund known as the “New Murabba:” a neighbourhood for hundreds of thousands of residents in the Saudi capital of Riyadh with at its heart a giant Mukaab (cube).
“Defining Riyadh’s new skyline, The Mukaad will attract visitors from across the world with its incredible state-of-the-art entertainment, dining and retail,” the project’s flashy website claims. “The world’s largest modern downtown. This is the new face of Riyadh.”
That is all good and well, but what about the old Mukaab, which is of course the Kaaba in Mecca. Not every cubic construction can be regarded as the Kaaba. Of course not. There is only one Kaaba.
Having said that, the new giant Kaaba has all the characteristics of “composition” and “gathering,” i.e., people coming together for trade, amusement, and worship.
The construction of the The Cube in Riyadh qualifies as a political act, which attempts to free Saudi society from the weight of its religious heritage and establish a neutral alternative. A huge alternative: The Cube is capable of accommodating no less than 20 New York Empire State buildings.
MBS presents such new, cutting-edge structures as symbols of the future Saudi Arabia. The giant 400 by 400 by 400 meter cube is located in the heart of the capital. It has an aura meant to represent skill and artifice.
However, historically, the pyramid is one of the most durable architectural shapes, as well as one of the most challenging ones to construct, which may explain why it is the symbol of several strong cultures. There is no pharaonic or Aztec cube. Nor is there a cube in front of the Louvre. Rather there are pyramids.
There is a problem organizing people and their movements within a structure such as “the Cube.” We are not talking about ventilation or energy here, but about the flow of people.
For example, imagine a demonstration or protest in this giant cube. It will be very easy to contain. The cube is similar to a mall, with regulated, purified, filtered, and air conditioned movement channels. At any moment, it can be closed and isolated.
These observations regarding the movement of people also apply to “The Line,” which is set to become an entire city built within a giant wall, 200 meters wide and 170 kilometers long. According to the website, The Line is to house 9 million people in the future.
At first, many people thought this was nothing more than propaganda of some sort, but construction has started, which raises both questions and doubts.
Like The Cube, The Line does not allow for free movement. Those who will live there can be isolated within minutes. Imagine, the police are chasing someone, where can he hide? There are no alleys or side streets. There is only a giant line in the desert. In theory, closing entrances and exits will be enough to lock people up.
Another issue relates to urban growth. New city centers may copy designs of older ones. For instance, Baghdad was circular, Damascus was irregular, and Alexandria is patterned like a checkerboard.
However, with time it became evident that the projected architectural shape did not account for the city growing like a “body:” organically expanding with lanes, streets and communities.
A city has centers and margins, with unique features and connections. It is a problem all of the world’s cities face, as it is difficult to “contain” bodies.
We can safely say that The Cube resembles a mall or a sizable resort, which constrains its ability to grow. As for The Line, the only way for it to grow would be to extend the line – an ironic way of urban development.
What is furthermore remarkable about MBS’ geometrical fantasies is that they are futuristic in a post-apocalyptic sense. Each represents a space that is bien carré: perfectly shaped, clean and out of place. One promotional video even shows flying cars.
Perhaps we should not mock the Saudi Crown Prince’s aspirations. Who knows, he may actually have a sound strategy to develop the country. However, there is clearly a sense of dominance emitted by these Euclidean dreams.
The old Roman garden used to have neat geometrical shapes to depict the stability of time and the capacity to control it. Likewise, MBS shapes are rigorous. They reflect power, and the ability to erase the effect of time.
What does not change shape is governed by political force. Imagine a city or downtown area that never changes or expands. The shape is always the same, the air artificial and conditioned. How could one explore such a place, if it is never changing? How can distinct smells enter if the air is always conditioned, purified?
Signs and stores may change, but the shape of The Line or The Cube will not. This is typical for a post-apocalyptic imagination: an area excluded from history and the rest of the world.
There is no room for nostalgia, no longing back for a particular period of time, in these structures. They are like ads continuously consumed without a pause. They are always new, so they lose their sense of an original source. Even the inspiration for them is forgotten, leaving us with just a line, a cube, and flying cars.