Postcard from Arabia

Listener 1 April, 2000

Keywords Globalisation & Trade;

Of Arrowtown, Denis Glover wrote there was “Gold in the ceilings/ gold in the floors”. He did not mean literally: rather gold mining has shaped the town. Saudi Arabia is shaped by oil. It holds more than a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, and is finding more. Currently the kingdom supplies about an eighth of total production, and is flush with the revenue from its sales.

Arabia is a desert (the highest rainfall region gets about the same as Christchurch) but a huge gas driven desalination plant on the Arabian Gulf sends water 400kms across the desert to the capital Riyadh in the middle, to support the city’s rapidly growing 4 million population. At Jubail on the Gulf and Yanbu on the Red Sea there are enormous industrial complexes coverting oil into petrochemicals. (You aint seen a real “Think Big” until you have been to Saudi.) The population of 20 million includes 6 million imported service workers from as far afield as the Philippines for the low skilled, and New Zealand for high level professionals in medicine and computing. (There are also an enormous variety of imported goods including New Zealand lamb and dairy products, Watties vegetables, and Dick Hubbard’s honey puffs. Saudi is a market we are a long way from fully exploiting.)

There is a contrast between the extravagance of the human settlements and the austerity of the natural landscape. It would be easy to see deserts as god-forsaken places, but untouched by man (and woman) there is a beauty and grandeur which brings a deist nearer to God. Yet where man goes, the landscape is demeaned. A wall protecting the magnificent escarpment at Abha at the south end of the Red Sea (which is a rift valley between two tectonic plates, running down to Africa’s Great Rift Valley) is covered with blown plastic bags, like the fence of a rubbish dump. The vision seems to be that the environment is an unlimited space for the activities of mankind, be they stunning engineering (the roads down the escarpment have to be seen to be believed), or the discarded plastic and abandoned cars, residuals from the oil.

From my limited reading, it would not appear inherent in Islamic economics that the environment should be so disregarded. Rather Saudis are perhaps a generation behind us in our increasing respect for nature. They, like us until recently, seem to believe that man must dominate the natural world, rather than live with it. Yet earthquake, volcano, or hurricane (not to mention the grinding of tectonic plates) remind us just how ineffective we are up against the full forces of nature. A dry, almost-vegetationless landscape emphasizes that the mills of God may grind slow, but they grind exceedingly small.

Saudis rejoice in large families. Half the population is under 16, and the population growth is close to the demographic maximum, doubling in less than twenty years. Infrastructural needs and the inflow of the young into the labour market are great pressure on the environment and the economy. (Per capita GDP has been falling in recent years.)

Differences in attitude to the environment have international implications. Saudi Arabia is suspicious of the West’s attempts to conserve energy and reduce global warming, for it sees them as screwing their income from oil. One doubts that the families which littered their picnic rubbish over a Red Sea beach, have much understanding of New Zealanders who pick up other’s litter to deposit in the bins. And, excepting for the 3 million pilgrims on the hajj to Makkah and Madinah, there is hardly any tourism, so there is not even that pressure for cleaning up the environment and preserving the heritage sites.

Instead, Saudis celebrate the prosperity that comes from the oil, using the funds ostentatiously and extravagantly, and often inefficiently. A 1000 bed hospital in Riyadh built years ago has yet to be used, a suburb of apartment blocks in Jeddah was last used as temporary accommodation for Kuwaitis fleeing the Gulf War.

Yet there remain relics from the past in the modernization. The souk (Arab open market) is not only a tourist attraction, but enables Arabs to express a centuries old culture of trading. (US photographer Diane Arbus coined “I shop, therefore I am”. For the Arab it is “I bargain, therefore I am.”) The souk at the Hofuf oasis (the greatest source of the world’s dates) has blacksmiths sitting on the ground in front of open fires using the millenium old technology of heating and beating to shape iron. One hundred kilometers up the road, a giant factory at Jubail recycles iron and steel. Cobblers work in the street, not far from shops offering expensive Gucci shoes.

In sight of the Jubail complex, behind pipelines carrying the gas and oil which fire its industry, are the remains of a fourth century Christian church. As I scrambled over the inland sand, albeit of an ancient seashore with shells scattered around, I recalled Shelley’s poem of the remains of a statue in the desert.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A companion article is The Gulf Between East and West