Why Women Driving In Saudi Arabia Is Significant

To women living in the Arabian kingdom, this is a historic day. To them there’s only one thing to take away from this day; they are equal to all women around the world in the right to steer, there will be no more spoken orders to go anywhere, the hand does what the mind wants.

There are however, repercussions, to everything.

For a long time, the economy of Saudi Arabia has been in a place coveted by most Arab countries, enjoying extreme oil wealth for the better part of a century, which helped transform the desert of tribes into a modern state with TV and universities and research centers and industrial power. The transformation was so quick it left many a people gasping at the pace, let alone Saudis themselves who found themselves in cultural and social dilemmas that entailed such crash importing of a lifestyle they never imagined or knew existed. The cultural shock, and the political makeup of the country allied to Wahhabi Islam, are the very reason for the many contradictions that existed in the path to modernity witnessed throughout much of the 20th century and to a lesser degree continue to exist into the 21st century.

The introduction of technology into the kingdom in the fifties and sixties has always been coupled with a backstory, most entertaining among which is the telephone story. Telephones didn’t make it into Saudi Arabia if it weren’t for the wit of King Faisal, who duly demonstrated the goods this device could bring - he actually put two Imams on either end of the line and had them have a conversation - to overshadow whatever evil the religious imams perceived it to possess. The first TV station in Saudi aired Quran recitals to show not only the imams, but as a symbol to the whole world, that this device can and will broadcast whatever you choose. The first radio station brought demonstrations that in one way or another resulted in the assassination of King Faisal.

The car had a different facet. It was imported very early on in the young kingdom, bulldozers and trucks along with them to help flatten the desert to build what are now contemporary cities. The religious and conservative young society however didn’t mind the streamlined American Fords and Caddies, but the idea that the Harim were to roam free on the roads, the sphere of men, without permission from their men guardian Muhram, and get into car accidents and stop and mingle with newspaper sellers at traffic lights was at odds with what the religious men believed to be decent for a woman. That was not an easy concept to demonstrate, because to them the only demonstration they knew of that was the women in the West without veils, driving red convertibles, with the wind stroking their hair. It was vice.

One might argue that other gulf societies have experienced the same new riches that brought all those culture clashes along with them, but there are fundamental differences. Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar have all been riparian societies. Their economies were heavily dependent on pearling and the subsequent trade. Trade with India and Persia showed them a new perspective to the outer world; men going out on long fishing trips at sea, often a week at a time, forced women to step up and assume daily chores inside and outside of their dwellings, which helped establish women as a vital part of day-to-day life in those primitive societies. Season-long trading voyages hardened their skin to assume leadership of life without a guardian. Who knows how many of those women were told their man was taken by the sea, and found themselves in place of the household’s breadwinner.

Jeddah lies on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. ‘The Jewel’ has always been their Red Sea maritime trade hub and it brought upon Jeddah’s society the same openness witnessed in Dubai or Doha today. The conservativeness of Riyadh many of us call extreme subsides in Jeddah, women are not even forced to wear the veil in public, to the women of Jeddah it’s a cultural thing just as much as the Sheila worn by women in the UAE consider it to be a thing of grace and beauty and culture, a religious symbol, not a cuff.

The hurdles Saudi women have had to overcome were enormous. Saudi Arabia has been a country locked in a tight ideological battle since its inception, primarily between a camp who wants the future and one who wants the past, the latter are Wahhabis who were promised Islamic foundations for the country, and it resulted in a tangible divide in the society. The lack of openness in public resulted in underdeveloped social skills necessary to cope with the modern artifacts of modern living. Women are underrepresented as part of the labor force of the country, which in turn limits the natural human interaction of the two bodies of the society for them to learn about one another. Single men have been mostly confined to bachelors’ quarters at restaurants and cafés, entry to malls had been restricted in the past, and to experience the pleasure of film, the youth have to drive to nearby Bahrain to sit in a cinema. Schools and universities are largely segregated.

In recent years, there has been numerous attempts by women to sit behind the wheel and drive down highways of Riyadh and other cities in an act of defiance and civil protest. The most recent one was three years ago when the campaign erupted on Twitter via the explosive hashtag #Women2Drive and #LoujainAtTheBorder, several arrests were made but were released upon their guardians signing pledges to abide by the law and not grant their wives or daughters the keys to their cars. In a previous incident, a father even apologized to the King personally. While some men were open-minded enough to let this happen, many took to the same medium of Twitter to shout out their anger against what they called Dayatha, an archaic term for an unjealous man - both linguistically and metaphorically. Those men are the generation that suffered the terror of the religious police, some of them are the very same who were followed in malls by the Mutawwaa’ (the religious authority officer) carrying a baton and a shaving machine on the hunt for teenagers imitating the outfits and hairstyles of Western Pop stars, giving them a free buzz-off. This generation never experienced what it’s like to converse with a female colleague or a neighbor, to expect that they’d accept this with open arms was lunacy.

Today in 2017, the circumstances have changed. The economy of Saudi is not limitless, or at least it is not perceived to be, the oil barrel has crawled up painfully slowly from early 2015 when it was at $30, and the religious police have been practically neutralized after a string of violations and abuses causing the King to render them irrelevant. A recessive wave of moderate Islam hit the Middle East after a long period of religious escalation. But the primary driver of reversing the policy on women driving in Saudi is economic. The young crown prince Muhammed Bin Salman (or MBS) wants to see a modern landscape and an oil-independent Saudi, with economy diversifying measures designed to boost the economy by creating new sectors and invigorating existing ones. The pros outweighed the cons.

The social gains from this decree are not negligible. Women will actively engage men on the streets, one of the primary components of public space, the message it sends out to women is that of empowerment, and it will allow women to further shape their lives and by extension their cities. The streets and their active retail frontages will thrive with cafes and plazas that are host to young women proud to announce their newly found liberty. Women have already been debating taking down the male guardianship that lurks over their heads, and if this is granted to them in the coming few years, the changes to the Saudi social landscape will be substantial, they would mimic the civil rights movement, in its reach and scale. We will then see exponential growth of civil liberties taking place in a time when Saudis need it most, a wave libertarianism could see the county’s potential unlocked, young men and women assuming more power and leadership over schools, universities, schools of art, theater and film-making, all disciplines that have rich seeds now but could further become major players on a regional level. Sowing seeds of cultured education may even have wider ripples.

The fight against extremism and terrorism could finally originate from within the kingdom. Ever since 9/11, the image of the country has been tarnished by 15 men, and the long-lasting effect of that day continues to this day where a lot of debate is taking place on how to eradicate religious and cultural extremism that may have caused the rise of many terrorist organizations. While the latter may have exploited the means available to them under whatever banner - be it religious or not - to recruit young fighters from across the world. Saudis have found themselves part of recent embroilments with two active wars in the region, wars that have been waged partly because of religious divide. Nonetheless, to draw the conclusion that omitting male guardianship in Saudi Arabia is the solution to global terrorism is daft, but the idea that empowering women in one of the most important players in a sensitive region is a bold proposition and is worth exploring.

Economically, Saudi's 30-million population - of which 70% is local - is a big market. Contrary to popular belief, many of them do not own multi-million-dollar mansions with a fleet of luxury cars, the majority lives on moderate incomes from jobs in public and private sectors, some Saudis even drive taxis for a living. Their GDP per capita is half of that of the UAE.

Opening the door for women to drive boosts many sectors of the economy, starting with the surge of driving license application and driving test fees, and subsequently the large number of driving licences the MOT will issue in the course of the next two years. New licensed drivers will bring the dealers more customers to drive new cars off their showroom floors, which in turn will inflate insurance rates for everyone. And when more drivers are put on the roads, more traffic violations and more speeding tickets will take place which will bring in more money into the annual budget. Many others will share the spoils such as the used cars dealers exploiting the opportunity of a new class of the society on the hunt for a different offering, older models will find their way on the export market opening more trade with neighboring countries. Service providers will see their businesses grow across the board, from window film shops to the supermarket shelves that sell scented accessories. But, does this mean that all businesses will prosper? unlikely.

The first job that will die a slow and painful death is private drivers, with their target audience literally abandoning them, their market has collapsed after decades of service for some of them. Some families will opt to retain their services to help senior members of the household, but one is safe to consider this job obsolete in the next few years. Taxi drivers and limousine companies as they are known in Saudi are the second to suffer with demand shifting away to car ownership. Regardless of what the financial difficulties may suggest, owning a car has become an unattainable dream for women, and in the wake of achieving it all reason of convenience will not be considered. Some taxi drivers will find themselves out of a job, or at least on less earnings compared to when they had a bigger part of the society dependent on them. Some will become unemployed who will turn to other services to find jobs, and some will turn to the state to support their livelihood. Will this put a little pressure on the state’s finances? It remains to be known.

But what would be easier to predict is the pressure more drivers on the roads will inflict on the maintenance of the infrastructure. Major cities like Riyadh may be planned with future-proofing in mind, but smaller cities will suffer from more roads users, longer traffic queues translating in loss of resources and time, let alone the ecological aftermath from more emissions. The number of road accidents could potentially rise in the country, which will require upsizing the police force and putting even more patrol cars on the road.

Introducing a new kind of “driver” to the streets of Saudi Arabia is another aspect worth contemplating. Saudi Arabia suffers from one of the highest road fatality rates in the world, a whole new infrastructure of measures must be introduced to educate road users on how to co-exist safely on the road. The cost of preserving human life may offset the many economic gains forecasted from this ban being lifted. However, one thing that we can take away from this day is that Saudi women are finally equal to all women around the world in the right to steer.

The Analogue Simulation Question

My loose question posted few weeks ago was flawed. The word "simulation" is the operative word here, to be able to fully explore the idea of being in reality that is reality outside our consciousness. Which is inconceivable, but not unthinkable.

Not living in base reality is a mathematical probability, it is possible though to be the species who found themselves in a very fortunate position to have evolved with enough conditions that permitted the evolution of consciousness and reflection, to realize that we "may" very well be the species that will eventually model their lifetimes in an alternative environment.

The environment we model our lifetimes in could either be analogue or digital. We have successfully modeled and simulated the existence of universes in computers. Such models could develop in the future to host complex beings living in them, some questions that come to mind then are, can we first of all communicate with them? The second question then would be, would we actually want to? The third question would be, do they have reflection to realize that they are living beings who live in a simulation? If yes, then that could be us.

The analogue model or "simulation" means that our existence is not virtual, and that what we see and smell and touch is all real, but not the reality we all call reality. It is the one and the same reality shared with the species who created our life, it would be life made of the same components and faces the same physical challenges as them. But then, the first question would be are those species or group of individuals from that species superior to us? The second question would be do we have free will? Could they die and could we still exist without them?

Further reading on this is required.

Emergency, This Way Please

Two years ago my friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, she is Farah's best friend and business partner. I feel we all got diagnosed with cancer.

We were with her at the hospital today for an emergency check up, and while wandering in the cold waiting area that is furnished in bright hues of beiges and sand leather and beach wood, I walked up to the randomly placed water cooler, right behind where the door handle would hit if the door is wide open, and above it was an architectural floor plan of the hospital floor we were on highlighting emergency exits. I would think the only time anyone would give it any attention is when they're waiting for the cooler to fill their little flimsy plastic cups with water. The layout read poorly. I imagined the person who was tasked with getting this done, I imagined them thinking that an architectural layout was to be printed with a green generic exit sign placed on top of the emergency exits, a thing only required by the municipality and the ministry of health. After initially noticing very poor lineweight rendering the drawing non-readable, my eyes adjusted and I spent about two minutes trying to figure out where I was in that floor plan, after that I lost interest and went back to my chair.

As an escape from my temporary extreme discomfort, I was thinking of that layout and how patients and visitors would read it and what would they do in case of a tragic situation. In cases of emergency, we behave very much like primates, we panic, we kick into survival mode, very few people rationalize the best possible solution in very little time, and when it comes time to execute the rapid contingency plan their mind came up with, it is contrasted by the irrational chaos. In these cases, who wants to spend three minutes when they see and smell smoke looking at a flat architectural layout? I believe a group of instructions that are communicated graphically in an innovative way would instruct us immediately how to behave. Text is such a powerful tool sometimes, and a word in that moment would speak louder than a thousand images. While architectural drawings best reflect the spatial dimension, the reality of an emergency is very different from the reality where that layout was produced.

These realities have to be analysed carefully by an authority or a governmental body charged with assessing the graphical communication in public spaces, billboards on roads, schools classrooms, fire emergency staircases, tunnels and pedestrian crossings. Who would want to read fine print on an ad placed on a billboard on a highway? Who is to blame in case of bad emergency measures?

Red Spot

Juno has returned a super high-detail photo of the famous red spot on Jupiter. Three earths would fit in this swirl.


Analogue Simulation

Could it be that rather than living in a digital simulation, that we're actually living in an analogue simulation? 


Some people believe I have OCD, I always joke that I'm still two steps away. It's been years since I started using this line, I don't know if I've surpassed those two steps yet, does aligning my monitors at the office (and sometimes others, if I like them) using a ruler qualify for OCD? Does keeping the pens in a pencil case pointing in the same direction put me in the OCD group? An ex-colleague once told me that he thinks that I like to think that I have OCD, which I know is true. Not because I pretend, it's because I think it's part of who I am. I am (almost) obsessive compulsive and I really don't care what he or others think.

Misophonia is a different story. If you don't know what 'Misophonia' is, simply put it is the hatred of hearing certain sounds, especially produced by certain people or sources. A lot of people would hate to hear nail scratching on a board, that's not Misophonia, that's the visualisation of pain associated by imagining the nails ripped off by the friction. A misophoniac would hate to hear, as an example, the specific sound of feet tapping on the floor in a nervous tick, or the sound of chewing gum, my friend once failed an exam because the girl behind her was chewing gum and she could not ignore the existence of that sound, and she chose not to endure it by leaving an exam she was perfectly capable of passing.

I have noticed that my hatred of sounds has increased a lot over the years, the first sound I ever hated was the sound my roommate made when he ate, neighbours could hear him to say the least and I hated sitting for a meal with him, and I did hate meals in general for a while because that's all I could think of even if he wasn't around, I would anticipate others slurping or smacking away. I didn't mind him, I minded the sound, so much.

It grew from a sound many people hated to very specific sounds that I could pinpoint, and the list is growing by the day. I remember I was once sitting at a desk for few weeks in the office and the water cooler was nearby, and I would watch colleagues approach carrying their glasses and empty bottles to fill them from the damn cooler, and I would anticipate the fragile sound, the rise in pitch, the sound of drops hitting drops producing a sound that annoyed me to a point that I started hating that water cooler and its place in the office.

It could be that some of these sounds are linked in my brain with the person that originated them, although I doubt in the case of the water cooler because I didn't know who was filling their glass, i just knew somebody was causing me grief. However, in some cases I know it is the person who makes the noises that "triggers" my hatred of that sound.

The sounds of delicious keyboard clicks is a very happy sound for me. I grew up in the culture of the turning point to being familiar with "PC"s in homes, and the first machine we had was an ugly looking piece of shit that ran on DOS, I still remember wanting a Macintosh and wanting to go in that shop that had the glowing "rainbow" Apple logo the night we went to buy the computer, that was end of 1980s or 1990. The sounds of some quality keyboards of that era are still amazing, the thickness of plastic that muffles the mechanisms underneath every key, the kind of plastic, the mechanisms, I don't know what it is, I just know I would love to have a vintage keyboard with delicious clicks with the command button, or a keyboard from the future that produces zero clicks. For some time in that office, I endured a colleague who came in early like me and unleashed her email replies early in the morning, to my misfortune, her keyboard was a cheap specimen that had horrible nasty loud clicks, and she wasn't delicate at all when she typed, I hated her in the morning although she was a very nice person.

The letter "S" is a very sensitive letter to pronounce, some people pronounce it with a delicious lisp that takes away the edge of it, or the "icepick", some don't have the lisp but it comes out so naturally that you would want to hear them talk because of the clarity with which they say the word "superfluous" or "myself" or "sky". Few have what in my head sounds like the chirping of an insect or the sound of high pitch bird chick, and I imagine them marvelling at how well they can make their "S"s whistle and I hate them and the letter S even more. One of those engaged in a phone conversation is enough to drive me out of a building mid-day in July, in Dubai. Can't they just say S without the high pitch dog whistle?

Parallel Projection

I was listening to few recordings that I did over the last few months and there was one which I enjoyed listening to and thought I should share it with others. I do a lot of atmospheric ambient sounds because I play alone and it's not always the case where I'm focused. Sometimes, I just want to repeat two notes that decay, the sound of decay is just wonderful. I will post something later about "Decay" that Farah did, a series of photographs, and something by me as an entree. All in due time.

I decided to name the piece "Parallel Projection", if you could make up the similarities and the reasoning that would be interesting.

What's The Deal With Safa Park?

Safa park in Dubai is one of the old parks like Khazzan park and Jumeira. There's been a bit of a hype around it lately because of the canal project. Dubai Water Canal, as they've branded it, introduced a water canal that runs through the park and completed the loop of Dubai's creek by linking its end to the sea. The creek previously terminated at Ras Al Khor, which is currently a wildlife sanctuary consisting of mangroves and the whole ecosystem that they support. The effect this project will have on the sanctuary is to be found out.

Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. PHOTO: Mario Guarneros

I'm particularly interested in Safa Park. Some of you who know me know that I'm quite interested in matters of land use and population growth. In fact, I wanted to write my ongoing thesis on a land use planning problem, however that did not materialise so I turned my attention to another problem in this part of the world which is public realm protection.

In a lot of places in the world with strict municipal mechanisms and public integration, dealing with public realm can be a very grueling and a long process. Projects have to be made public and the public gets to participate in deciding the fate of those projects. Some of them never see the light of day and some make it after years of lobbying and negotiation and charrettes and focus groups trying to make everybody happy. In this part of the world, the public is a kind welcoming public, one who believes in the wisdom of the government, they entrust them with the fate of their lives and the lives of their children and their children, and the fate of their cities. The Safa park project was made public in 2012, the canal project, previously called Arabian Canal, was being masterplanned in the quiet as early as 2003.

First, what's the deal with Safa Park? What is happening?

PHOTO: Source and Source

This is how Safa Park looked like before 2014. When I started working at Woods Bagot, the office was a 5-minute walk from Safa Park and I used to park my car under the trees edging it, free parking spaces on the perimeter of the park. A few months in and the trees were getting chopped, orange cones were blocking off the free parking spaces, I used to park in one particular space everyday where the curb on the pavement was slightly bulged because of the tree's roots. That's how old the place was, you don't see curbs bulge because of trees much in Dubai.

The park is (strike that) was 1.2 kilometers long and 600 meters wide. The southern short side is border by Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's arterial main road, Golden Avenue in marketing lingo. The district it's in is called Al Wasl, adjacent to the Jumeira district which is Dubai's beach ultra posh neighborhood, white villas with tall palm trees is what comes to mind. Around Safa Park, a recent development by Wasl (Wasl Asset Management Group) is Wasl Square, right opposite the park on Wasl Road providing attached townhouses and low-rise residential apartment buildings on top of active retail frontages buffering both Wasl road and Al Hadiqa Street (translating to the Park street, formerly known as Safa street). When the canal project was announced there was a whole lot of infrastructure work to accompany the drastic changes the canal would cause, the Sheikh Zayed Road bridges were what a lot of people who pass by there on their route to work would notice, and the construction pace was unprecedented, they lifted a 75-meter 16-lane highway in months. Another bridge was on Wasl Road which as it went up the retail frontage on Hadeeqa Street suffered a reduction on pedestrian and motorised traffic. According to few shops there that I asked, traffic on their shops went down by 80%, some shops already shut down.

From a commercial point of view one would believe it's a bold project. It will activate water transport in Dubai in a way seen in many great cities where one can get on a boat from Business Bay and cruise down to Deira, retail shops and land value will soar on the banks of the new waterfront, hotels, apartments, villas, new bridges, everybody will benefit. The part of the project my thesis is concerned with is Safa Park, and I think from an academic point of view, everybody won except for one loser which is 'Public Space'.

I could be wrong.