By Jamis H. MacNiven
Photos (most) By Kevin Kelly
My cousin Will Milne and I decided to go with Kevin Kelly to hear his speech at the World Government Summit in Dubai recently. The WGS is mostly Westerners lecturing to mostly Middle Easterners and each year there’s a theme. This year’s was Global Happiness and Artificial Intelligence (they turned down my suggestion of Dogs in Government and Toast.) Think Davos but with better weather and waaay more people. This conference is produced on several stages simultaneously and is so vast it makes the TED Conference look like a mid-sized Mormon picnic. 90 speakers, 150 countries, 4002 (with Will and me) attendees. And nearly half were women.
Kevin is a historian of the future and he delivered with pith and verve about what we might expect in the next 20 years. Will and I slithered in posing as Kevin’s bodyguards and I think we did the job adequately as he was unmolested except by journalists who insisted on yet more pith everywhere he went.
The speaker list is pretty original from Prime Minister Modi of India to Goldie Hawn. I met several people I knew and plenty I knew of such as Arianna Huffington (she is everywhere), Malcolm Gladwell, Robert de Niro and Sebastian Thrun who I run into so frequently he asked me if I was his stalker (yes). Did you know there is a culture of professional international conference people? I think we need our own passports. It’s like rock and roll. The money is in the concerts not the records (or in this case, books).
The crowd was 80% Middle Eastern but the speaker list was all over the place. At one point we were having dinner with rapper Will.i.am. Typically, atypical. I could not find anyone who paid to attend so it appears to be on the UAE dime and, unlike TED, the speakers are paid and flown first class on Emirates. First class is alright and we used the (one of two) showers but they limit you to 5 minutes (maybe 10 if two go together). This gathering was at a lux resort and the limo bill alone was bigger than the GDP of Argentina.
Dubai is quite a scene. A trip up the Birj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world (for now), is practically mandatory, as is a visit to The Frame. This is literally a picture frame set at the edge of the city so you can gaze at the skyline as a piece of framed art. It’s 50 stories high. Anyone over 60 years old gets in for free so we saved big money there.
After two days we headed into the desert for our real goal, Saudi Arabia. Our first night was in Jeddah, (pop. four million) and we stayed in the old city. This is a fairly run down area that hasn’t been redeveloped yet. It looked a bit like a tired neighborhood in Oakland. Later we found that most of the city looks more like the coastal cities of Los Angeles, but newer.
Through a mutual friend, Michael Hawley, we were advised to give his friend a call, His Royal Highness Prince Saul K. Faisal the Deputy Governor of the Medinah Region. Medinah is one of two holy cities. So sure I rang up the Prince. Our meeting lasted several hours in his vast office with this most contemporary of gentleman. Urban, traveled, forward thinking and under 40. He was also 6’5” and movie star handsome. The Prince has spent a good deal of time in the United States and even flew a small plane all the way across the U.S with his architect-trained wife. He took the time to give us a complete account their remarkable trip, as well as explaining how the oil industry is organized with a deep discussion on how extraction and shipping works. He explained in detail his vision for the future of his region and for the country.
The Prince has an extensive business background and it’s his intention to bring Medinah even further into the modern world with construction projects and new industries, all with the idea of creating jobs. Saudi Arabia has relatively high unemployment and this is a big concern. Of course hydrocarbons lead the way. We discovered to our surprise that of the oil production of about ten million barrels a day, about half is being consumed domestically.
When we asked the Price about alternative energy and conservation he had a great deal to say. He wants to deploy more solar as they have as much sunlight as oil but the dust on the panels is a limitation and of course it competes with inexpensive fossil fuel. But to help address these issues the price of water and gas recently doubled, and it will go higher still. The days of 50 cent gasoline are over.
After several amazing hours we left and were shown around Medinah by the Prince’s aide, first to the Ottoman era train museum. This is the train line from Istanbul to Medinah which the Turks built to help hold the empire and which Lawrence and the Arabs kept dynamiting.
After the train museum we went to a very holy place, Prophet Mohammed’s mosque. We had heard this was off limits to non-Muslims but it can be visited with proper permission. We went to a Quran Museum and were escorted by the director though this vast repository of ancient texts. The director even recited the prayers which he intoned with a big smile. To our surprise the guards swept the rooms clear of the other visitors for our private tour at the conclusion of which we received many gifts including gold leafed English interpreted copies of the Quran.
The World Summit was one aspect of the trip. But my real goal in Arabia was to see the ruins of the UNESCO site, Madain Saleh, the fabled city of the Nabataean culture of two thousand years ago. The permission to enter Saudi took several months and along the way we discovered that the ruins were closed to the public and will be for some time. Through a series of fortunate connections we were invited into the country as visiting professors to the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies in the capital, Riyadh, so between being profs at the Center and now being friends with Prince Faisal the officials at the ruins were very happy to open this vast complex for just us.
Driving north we saw a bunch of cars trucks stopped on the freeway. It seems a very large troop of baboons had set up a road block and everyone was stopping to take their pictures and to feed them road food like chips and candy bars. They seem to be doing well on this diet as there were at least a hundred of them We were told to be careful as they can make a grab for your sunglasses or iPhone and you have ransom your stuff back with edible trade good. So there is crime in Saudi Arabia.
Balancing this miscreants was a nice incident when Kevin inadvertently left his camera bag and other valuables at a shopping mall in Medinah. Some teenage boys found it and went through it until they found his hotel room number on a card and they went to the hotel, found his room and returned it. Such a thoughtful gesture.
The night before our tour of the ruins Kevin had arranged for us to glam-camp at a desert compound composed of about 25 tents in a dramatic lava topped sandstone gorge. As this was the only place to stay for over a hundred miles we were happy to finally find it after wandering in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights (or 2 hours whichever was shorter). At one point we were quite lost so we knocked on the tent of a Bedouin herdsman and asked for directions. Amazingly he did not speak English but by waving our arms and trying Italian and Spanish we were soon pointed in the right direction.
The ruins consist of 131 tombs carved in solid sandstone. Our guide pointed out where the king received his petitioners and gave us a detailed account of specific individuals including who sat where and what was said. I have been to a great many ruins and at guide school they teach guidestroy and it always includes specific details making the tours a lot of fun even if the stories are somewhat ahhh…enhanced as many of these cultures left no notes.
The area had been lush 2,000 years ago, and because the water wells and the fact they were on the Spice Road trade route it was a major commercial enterprise. The tombs show an almost exclusively Egyptian influence unlike Petra which has more Roman architecture. The Romans invaded Petra and remodeled the city, but at Madain Saleh they just shut ‘er down and the place was abandoned. The city itself remains buried but the surrounding cliffs are festooned with tomb entrances. Inside there are body sized niches holding from one to hundred.
Amazingly it was raining, hard at times, which we thought quite remarkable. The weather for our entire trip was excellent, in the high 60s and except for one day of dust storm (bad enough to shut the schools) it was perfect.
Saudi Arabia is not like any other country I have ever been to. It is a very religious country and the women are completely covered in black garments. Praying five times a day is the norm with the shops being shut during this period and one can hear the prayers broadcast from the many mosques.
When I go to a country I go with as few prejudices as possible. Many folks I told about our trip prior to our departure cautioned us to ‘be safe’. People think the entire Middle East is a monolithic danger zone. It isn’t. But what appears to be a real danger is urban traffic. I could say the Saudi’s are bad drivers but it’s really the opposite. Even though they drive like it’s their last day on earth we saw few dented cars and even rush hour traffic moves at good clip. But the drivers use every inch and Will steered our big GMC like a fighter pilot. We used Google maps everywhere since connectivity in this country is excellent.
Leaving the ruins we drove south at night and came upon a huge city which was not on our map! It was at least 12 miles across. It turned out it wasn’t a city at all but one of the world’s largest oil refineries. At night it looked quite otherworldly with soaring lite-up towers, flames of burning gas and countless structures of wild configuration. We ecologically minded look with both fascination and horror at such things and are at once critics, victims and beneficiaries of ‘all this.’ So unless we are going to grow food, dressed in rabbit skins and live in a cave, this our refinery too.
The Prince invited us back to Jeddah for a trip across the desert in flying motorcycles and most thoughtfully put us up best hotel in the city. We met up at a miniature airport with several pilot friends of his and took five gyrocopters and one small fixed wing plane into the sky. These rare gyros are a technology that dates back to 1923. Our aircraft consisted of a tiny two person pod with a horizontal propeller overhead and a vertical one behind. The engine-driven aft propeller drives the craft forward and when the upper one turns it provides the lift. Trust me it all works and as a result you can take off in 100 feet and land almost anywhere. First our squadron flew over the downtown and along the coast. Without air traffic rules we flew low over the city. We passed the soon to be tallest building in the world at 3,300 feet (take that Dubai) being built by Alwaleed bin Tala the wealthiest of the Saudis and coincidently a guy I met when he was a teenager going to Menlo College. He had me come to his house on El Camino to look at a little construction project he had in mind. I showed up and taking me to the backyard he told me he wanted to move the large in-ground pool from the shade into the sun. I patiently explained that I could tear it out and build a new one but I couldn’t move it. He looked at me puzzled. “But it’s only 30 feet,” he said. As I tried to explain how reality worked he perp-walked me out of the yard. Later, when I saw him on the cover of Time Magazine, I kicked myself. We got to the moon I thought, how hard would be to move a dern pool 30 feet!
We were soon cruising over the desert and came upon the vast new King Abdullah Economic City with its 20+ year timeline to complete. These people think big! At about 300 feet we flew over a just completed major container shipping port which was bustling (we don’t dare do this in Oakland). We were warned to hold tight to our phones as we took pictures but one of our party lost his and he watched it fall into the vast sea of shipping containers. Amazingly, he used Find My iPhone and though the screen was cracked he got it back and we reviewed the video of the fall and recovery. I see an Apple ad here.
We landed at a desert airstrip and were met by a greeting committee who provided lunch. Taking off again we traveled north and made loops around a medieval fort. The Prince is a very experience pilot and felt quite comfortable dropping to the deck and flying through flocks of birds, skimming a few feet over the ground. Will was flying with him and believed there was a better than even chance of surviving. 50/50 is all we require because if you don’t take it to the edge you don’t know where the edge is, right?
We circled a major bullet train station with the trains all lined up ready to rocket out of the station in just a few days. This will link all the major western cities of the peninsula. Crossing the desert, we flew over a great many idle farms and unoccupied homes as there has been a major shift to the cities. As the sun set we flew over Jeddah at 300 feet. Many of the neighborhoods feature massive homes, 10 to 30k sq. feet, so that the larger family can stay together. Old age homes are unknown in this country. Many sons and daughters proudly live with their parents their whole lives. To me this is the most impressive aspect this society.
The population has soared in recent years. From 4 million in 1960 to 32 million today and half the population is under 30 years old. This causes the fabric of society to be stretched in all directions. 30% are visiting workers including about 100k Westerners.
As just about the only authentic American tourists we were considered highly unusual. There is some talk about bringing tourists to the country but with the proviso that they be the right sort of tourist. This is a country with traditions which run contrary to many people’s beliefs so I’m not confident that there will be much Western tourism. Of course there are a lot of Muslin tourists and pilgrims because every Muslim is required to complete the Hajj (if possible), which includes a visit to the most holy site in Islam, the Kaaba, in Mecca. Some 25 million attend annually with many coming during a five-day period. This activity is a great unifier of the faithful.
The sun was setting over the fabled Red Sea as we landed and we had Arabian coffee with our new friends. The groups we were with were constantly flowing with new people. But hey, where was our friend the Prince? He had slipped away to attend to affairs of state. We were grateful for his generosity but mostly we were grateful for his time and his thoughtful regard for us. Saudi Arabia has a bright future if led by people like this.
We told our airport group that the next day we would be driving the 500 miles from Jeddah to Riyadh. They looked at us with amazement. Many of them had never done this. They said there is nothing there, but Kevin said if we flew we wouldn’t see anything but if we drove we would see nothing and a whole lot of it. Of course that was the appeal for us. There is one sizeable city and a few villages but mostly it is sand, rock, sand, rock and camels. To us from lush California under the redwood trees the desert is grand.
At one point we had Sam Harris and Russell Brand with us for a few hours. Amazingly they were hitchhiking in the desert. Really! … No, not really. They came by podcast and among the topics they discussed were civil rights in Saudi Arabia even mentioning Mecca which coincidentally we were driving past at the time. Far from the cities there is a purity with the timeless sand dunes advancing like ocean waves over the land and we switched from Sam’s kvetching to the movie music from Lawrence of Arabia. In fact it was this 1962 film which ignited my enthusiasm to see the Middle East, and Arabia nearly completes my excursions throughout the Arab world. So we, like Lawrence, crossed the desert though it was 68 degrees inside and out and there were popsicles available all along the way and there was internet connection everywhere. They, like many places around the world are much better wired than the U.S.
The next day went to the King Faisal Center of Islamic Studies to say hello to Turki bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud the chairman of the Center and the one-time Ambassador to the United States and met with the Center’s director and our initial contact, Nabil Kowater and his nephew Abdulla Al Kowater. We encountered the now anticipated kaleidoscope of smiling, welcoming people. When I asked the director about youth issues he said he could tell us but it would better if we heard it from them and we were swept from his office into a conference room where we were introduced to some scholars from the Center with whom we exchanged ideas about our two countries for several hours. The topics ranged from how one accommodates ancient traditions in the modern age to Artificial Intelligence. Kevin was his usual sunny self about the future of technology and human compatibility with AI. My vision of the future of humanity includes a lot more feral cats being roasted over tire fires (think of me when the internet goes down).
One of the women told us she grew up with a deep appreciation for the ecology of the planet because of Carl Sagan and the pale blue dot. Digression: A friend of mine and one of Kevin’s very closest friends, Stewart Brand, convinced NASA to turn a camera on Apollo 8 back toward earth to take the first picture of the pale blue dot. It was he and Kevin, with others, who published the Whole Earth Catalogue with the picture of earth on the cover. This publication was subtitled ‘access to tools’. My wife Margaret and I used it as our guide to moving to the country, going solar, drilling a well, raising a roof and learning to farm. And we still live the Whole Earth lifestyle all these decades later. End of digression
One man we met at Center was very outspoken and by his own reckoning a pessimist who thought that very authoritarian governance was the answer to keeping the beasts of chaos at bay. He particularly likes the new Chinese model of universal surveillance. Did you know that there is rapidly growing program in China to rank every citizen with a three-digit number? This will be mandatory in two years. Not a social security number but just you and billion-plus others stratified as to your personhood quality. (Al WeiWei pack your bags) The real world consequence of this is that the higher your score the better access you will get to schools, cars, marriages and even the ability to buy a train ticket. To us in America this sounds positively Orwellian. It is that very thing. But we are facing this at our own speed. We’re used to FICO scores, eBay rankings and now Uber and Airbnb reputations. It’s only a matter of time before there is a single number in the good ol’ USofA, though it may bump into some god-given freedoms like the right of a government-certified mentally ill person (as in, a person on disability due to diminished capacity, I am not exaggerating here) the right to open carry a semi-automatic into a public park in case a six year old tries to attack him with a Snickers bar. In America this universal ranking will be adjudicated by lobbyists, special interests, revenge reports, record scrubbing bots and plain ol’ money. (I’m going to go eat my cat now)
Where was I? Oh yes, in the meeting at the Islamic Center where we also spoke to an erudite young woman who is a Japan expert as her father was the Saudi ambassador to Japan. These young folks spoke flawless English and had all lived abroad. One thing we discovered was that when Saudis learn English they might have a slight accent if they have lived in England but generally they seem to have an American accent which gives one the impression they have all lived in the U.S. even if it’s not the case.
On our last night our host Nabil took us to dinner at a traditional restaurant in Riyadh where we got a master’s degree in Saudi history and a glimpse of his vision for the future. We talked about the 2030 project with the aim of creating a new city called Neom, a ten-thousand square mile zone, which would straddle Saudi, Jordan and Egypt in the far north. It has been described as the Hong Kong of the Arab world; a semi-autonomous region following a different form of governance.
There was so much more to see and my visa is for 5 years they might just see me back at some point.
There is no doubt that our culture in America and that of Saudi Arabia are quite different in many regards. So should America and Saudi Arabia be friends and allies? Absolutely, we should be friends with every country.