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MODERN TOWERS OF BABEL IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Not to be outdone by tiny Dubai, which now boasts the world’s tallest building at 160 stories and is planning a 400 storey tower, Saudi Arabia is planning to build a mile-high tower, 500 stories of (imported, naturally) glass and steel. Their tower will look somewhat like a rocket with two shorter supporting columns on either side, those supporting columns being two 80 storey skyscrapers. The mile high tower will be the centerpiece of a new city being built in the desert near the Saudi city of Jeddah. The design and the building of this white elephant is the work of Western architects, engineers and builders, as was all the work on the Dubai tower.

It seems that the Middle Eastern kingdoms that have been raking in untold trillions of oil dollars for nearly a century haven’t done all that much in the way of educating their own people in the ways of engineering, construction, manufacturing, irrigation, road building, agriculture or any other useful enterprise, probably figuring the oil money will last forever. These kings and sheiks live in fear of somebody somewhere in a laboratory yelling “Eureka” when he or she formulates a new form of energy that will replace petroleum as the universal power source on this planet.

The only country in the Middle East addressing life without oil is Dubai, whose reserves are expected to run out within 20 years. Their response to that, however, has not been to take their money and invest it in universities, industries, research and development or any sort of agriculture. Instead they are earnestly transforming Dubai into a tourist destination, building palm-shaped islands made out of sand (!) in the stormy Persian Gulf filled with luxury hotels and condominiums and erecting the world’s tallest building, all in one of the hottest and most inhospitable climates on earth. Most of the jobs in these tourist locations will be filled by foreigners, leaving the 2 million Dubai natives, where? Sound thinking, eh?

The Saudis, on the other hand, claim to have invested in their own people’s future and boast 8 universities, 100 colleges and 5,000 schools to prove it. In New York City alone there are over 100 universities and colleges, 1,000 public schools and hundreds of private schools. Most Saudi schools are a sad joke incapable of preparing students to work and compete in the modern world. Memorizing the Koran may be a laudable achievement, but if that’s all you’ve got when you are looking for a job you’ll get handed a broom if you’re even lucky enough to get hired. And of their 8 universities, none of them register on the radar with high school seniors looking to get admitted to a prestigious school, and Saudis with money who want a decent education for their own children send them elsewhere to study. 

Saudi Arabia is also the only country in the region with a railroad, 600 whole miles long. Estonia has more. In a year their trains carry 700,000 passengers. New York City subways handle more in a single day. They have also built roads, they say, 156,000 miles of them, substantially less than there are in Arkansas. And while most of that nation is an uninhabitable desert, they do have some temperate and moist locations near the coast suitable for agriculture, but the percentage of their GNP from agriculture is small and shrinking every year. As for industries, there is the oil industry, period, and even that is mainly run by tech-savvy and educated foreigners. They don’t even have a glass industry, something you’d think would be a natural with all that sand, and an enterprise that would save them a lot of dough for 500 floors of windows for their new Tower of Babel.

The laws in the Saudi Kingdom are ridiculously harsh for all but the decadent royals, and the Koran is their constitution. Women are slaves kept under house arrest and criminals are whipped, stoned and beheaded for the amusement of an idle citizenry, sort of like ancient Rome minus the accomplishments. And so they want to build their mile high tower, further squandering their vast oil fortunes on yet another pet project of one of the ruling elite. And once that person in that laboratory shouts Eureka, it’s all over and the Saudis will have only Mecca and Medina as religious tourist attractions, plus a mile high empty tower swaying in the desert wind. 

You have to feel sorry for the future of the people in these regions. Not for the kings and sheiks, though, who are earnestly squandering their citizens’ future for their own amusement and glorification. When the inevitable happens, you don’t have to be a prophet to predict who will be center stage in the soccer arena at beheading time. And after that, it’s back to camel caravans, tents and oases for the average citizens of these temporarily wealthy nations. The countries that remain prosperous are the ones with many different sustainable industries so that when one grows obsolete the others take up the slack and new ones spring up. Maybe if just one of those 8 universities offered a decent history course the word might spread in the kingdoms. But that’s the whole idea of a kingdom, keeping the rabble ignorant and isolated. So far, so good.

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