The land between high tech and sacred places

The land between high tech and sacred places

DIt moves through the desert landscape at breakneck speed. All you can see is that the surface of an ocher resembles a sky blue color. It is scorching heat outside which gives pain. In summer Saudi Arab, the temperature around 50 °C. The air conditioning is steady, the wagons are pleasantly tempered. You don’t even notice the speed at which the “Hermain Express” passes through the wastelands: from Mecca to Medina, the roughly 450-kilometer, skinny high-speed train takes less than two and a half hours. It rolls into gleaming train stations that look like space stations that have fallen from the future. It’s a billion-dollar prestige project in line with the state’s ambitions: high-tech connecting sacred sites.

The train is not only an attraction for the pilgrims who visit Saudi Arabia year after year. Business travelers also appreciate Hallows Express. “People are starting to realize that it is a lot more comfortable than driving or flying,” says one insurance worker. But even for them this journey is nothing but routine. He is amazed not only by the new mode of travel that takes him to his destination twice as fast as his car, but also by the speed with which the country has changed.

“The whole country is one big disco!”

About six years ago, the Crown Prince Muhammad bin SalmanIn short, MBS announced Vision 2030, which aims to modernize Saudi Arabia, open up its society and make its economy independent of oil revenue. He has prescribed a violent cure for the country. Its consequences also affect those who have been longing for change for a long time. The insurance broker says in the “Herman Express” a sentence that can be heard over and over again—from artists and entrepreneurs from big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, or coffee farmers from the provinces: “I wouldn’t have dreamed it.”

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Passengers stand next to a bullet train on the platform in Medina in October 2018.

Passengers stand next to a bullet train on the platform in Medina in October 2018.

Image: DPA

The train leaves at Jeddah on time. The coastal city has always been considered comparatively cosmopolitan. Traders from all over the world traded here, settling in guest workers who were unfamiliar with the ultra-Orthodox Wahhabi state of Islam. If you guessed someone like Ayman Tamano, musician, record producer, filmmaker and photographer, he would be in Jeddah. He is someone who knows everyone in his city’s creative scene, and in turn knows everyone else in that scene. He is one of his thoughtful minds. His studio had long been in one of the upper floors of an office tower, but now everyone can know what he is doing there. “Like many people, I’m still processing what’s going on here,” Ayman says. There is still a hint of unreliability when he and his friends discuss their newfound openness. And they do this every day.

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