by Tobias Thornes
Down the dusty road from Jordan into Saudi Arabia I make my slow but steady way. The bus takes me southwards through this dry desert peninsula, on another route frequented by pilgrims from far and wide down the ages. They travel in their millions to Mecca and Medina – those great, ancient outposts of vibrant civilisation in the midst of an arid land – which complete the trio of holy sites, so curiously but perhaps meaningfully clustered on this narrow bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe, that have historically been thronged in religious festivals of global importance. Unlike their northern cousin, Jerusalem the besieged and divided, to this day these cities continue to witness an annual swelling of their populations by several times at the appointed time of year.
I am glad not to be travelling during the Hajj, when these roads will be packed with pilgrims beyond counting: a wonderful and inspiring sight, to be sure – especially in an age of apathetic secularisation when such meaningful and committed sacrifice of time, effort and home comforts for the sake of one’s core purpose and beliefs is rare – but nevertheless not the safest place for a slow traveller to be caught amidst the rushing crowds.
One wonders whether the commandment to do pilgrimage – given at a time when the Muslim world was smaller and travel was more spiritually reverential and less harmful to the environment – should really still apply across the world today, or whether the meaning of this once so humble, arduous pilgrimage is lost amidst the bustle of modernity. I am glad, too, not to be here in high summer, when today’s sweltering maximum temperature of nearly forty degrees could easily be topped by another ten. Even here in the relatively cool coastal mountains of the west, the sun beats a parched and weary heat from hot horizon to hot horizon and the very air feels heavy to my unaccustomed lungs.
Regular temperatures much higher than this would simply not be survivable, and it is ironic that things will only get worse as the climate changes, further scorching a country that, more than most, has hinged its economic survival on the very fuel that fires global warming. Saudi Arabia is almost utterly dependent on oil. Extorting this black gold from the Earth accounts for ninety per cent of its exports and almost its entire domestic production and service industries. It far exceeds the country’s extortion of water, which is mostly derived from non-renewable aquifers now four-fifths exhausted by a small but significant unsustainable domestic agriculture.
But environmental sustainability isn’t top of the agenda here, and I’m surprised that even talking about climate change hasn’t been declared illegal by the oligarchic regime that’s getting rich from global warming. After all, reporting on poverty – another important subject – has been banned, and the government refuses to acknowledge that it even exists, or to gather any statistics on how many of the exploited lower classes are failing to benefit from its oil-fired boom.
Medina greets me like a microcosm of all this: a dream-like mountain ‘paradise’ sprouting from the parched earth, flourishing civilisation where there ought to be desert. At the end of a shimmering ribbon of road, the city seems at first a magical and welcoming sight but, in common with much of modern Saudi Arabia, its charms are superficial – artificial, even, manufactured in the image of the rich world that it apes.
There are mosques, domes and minarets aplenty amidst the modern skyscrapers and apartments, but one would be mistaken to imagine that these reflect the ancient heritage of the city. Most of the centuries-old monuments hereabouts are no longer standing. Considered idolatrous under the strict religion of the Saudi government, many shrines, Mosques and places associated with the Prophet Muhammad have been destroyed in the past few decades lest they become the foci of idolatrous worship of places and people rather than God.
It’s a point of contention that’s surfaced many times in religious history: do devotional images and buildings draw us closer to God or distract us from Him? Often, though, this sort of violent iconoclasm speaks more of the ruling regime’s desire to demonstrate its own power and impose its own man-made religion on its subjects than of selfless sacrifice to God. Amidst the foreign fabrications of Medina – or at least, those parts that a non-Muslim is permitted to visit – I feel little connection with the past and little sense of peace.
I find greater peace in the mountains away from the city, and the next few days see me journey slowly, by foot and by bus, from their majestic, spiritual splendour down towards the hot, flat plains of the east. It is too hot to travel in the middle part of each day, and I take advantage of my long sojourns in villages and towns to sample at least a taste of a past, nomadic culture that is being slowly suffocated beneath the wasteful and exploitative Saudi Arabia of today. There is still some wildlife to be seen here, though the desert’s biggest creatures – onyx, leopard and gazelle – were wiped out by the over-extortionate hunting of the mid-twentieth century.
When I eventually reach the capital Riyadh it strikes me as profoundly uninspiring. Adorned now with ostentatious trappings designed to flaunt the greedy, excessive wealth of the rich oil barons, there is very little left of the town’s humbler beginnings. If Mecca and Medina are the region’s spiritual heart, Riyadh is a temple to the gods of money and material wealth, and perhaps gives a truer illustration of where the hearts of the ruling classes lie. At least, though, I saw there one small nod towards sustainability in the recycling of sewer water to quench the city’s thirst.
It’s difficult to see any such signs at my next major stop, just across the border: the city that shouldn’t be. I reach Dubai on the coast road by air-conditioned coach, which gives a strong foretaste of the city itself: artificially ice-cool where it should be burning hot. Here, capitalist competition for show-offish success and disregard for the long-term prosperity of the planet meet their crux amidst the world’s tallest buildings, which rise from the dust like Towers of Babel.
The huge airport – which forms a brief stopping-point for countless fast travellers on their thoughtless long-distance journeys – provides the best indication I know of for the extortionately fast pace of the modern world. The air-conditioned buildings, the ice rink in the desert, the fake sand on fake islands on a man-made coastline: all strive to keep up the pretence that so many people living here is normal.
But the resource costs of keeping all these wealthy residents and tourists not only alive but drowning in material excess are huge. The city lives off non-renewable extortion of natural resources and human labour like nowhere else. Dubai is mankind saying to itself, ‘Look at my greatness, thriving even in the harshest of environments’. Yet it can’t last. If the planet takes this trajectory, it can’t be long before our own Ozymandian ruins give testament to the foolishness of our pride. And looking on at all these mighty modern works, I myself almost, indeed, despair.