Omer Shah, “From Mecca to The World: Experimental Technopolitics and Islam in the Post-Oil Holy City,” Arab Studies Journal XXXI, no. 1-2 (2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Omer Shah (OS): The article is an attempt to both historicize and open up onto the ethnographic fieldwork I did in Jeddah and Mecca from 2017 to 2019. My fieldwork examines how, in the aftermath of oil, the Saudi state is attempting to remake Mecca into a laboratory for new sciences and technologies of crowd management and logistics. Much of my research unfolded around Mecca’s university and its plans for a science and technology park, a project known as the Makkah Techno Valley. Interestingly, the science and technology park was built just on the edge of the sanctuary or haram boundary. One implication of this spatial arrangement is that it gives non-Muslim experts and entrepreneurs access to this new laboratory for the crowd, surveillance, and logistics. The project calls forth histories of prior sovereigns of the hajj governing at a distance. However, it is also totally unique in the way that it spatializes and monetizes hajj problem-solving. The project speaks the ersatz hype and global grammars of entrepreneurship, smartness, and the knowledge economy. Yet while the project signaled new mobilities, circulations, new ambitions, it was never fully divorced of Islamic grammars and actors. And so, the title of the article, “from Mecca to the world…” vivifies some of these ambitions.
While a post-oil imaginary and a desire to intensify a knowledge economy plays a significant role in coordinating these plans and proposals, I am also trying to situate some of these projects within a longer history of what I call “Islamic technopolitics.” One historical thread and contrast I produce in the article is through the experimental, interdisciplinary, and collaborative work of a group known as the Hajj Research Center. Founded in the 1970s, the Hajj Research Center attempted to deploy the tools of architecture and engineering to plan the Islamic sanctuary. In their account, they were developing “a Muslim solution to a Muslim problem.”
And so, the article proceeds in and through a comparative. I show how these two technopolitical experiments draw from different arrangements of the religious and the secular, and how they carry forth and advocate different political sensibilities, modes of problem solving, and aesthetics. But also reveal and revel in different itineraries of knowledge production, expertise, and circulation. I see both projects are incredibly unique technopolitical experiments, neither of which can be fully appreciated as mere secular impositions. And while I produce this category of Islamic technopolitics, part of what I am also describing here is how the intellectual, social, and political richness of the Islamic sanctuary and ordinary Meccans is being flattened, traded for more global forms and formats.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
OS: I see the text as contributing to and challenging both the anthropology of Islam and a literature on technopolitics. The anthropology of Islam has helped me think about how Muslims engage, encounter, and challenge the modern secular state. It has contributed significantly to broader conversations about the ever-shifting line between the religious and the secular. However, it has tended towards a concern with “the law” to apprehend this unstable line between religion and politics. Another set of scholars have sought to examine an “everyday” Islam, suggesting that the focus on ethical self-cultivation and textuality ignores questions of desire, resistance, and leisure. Beyond these two camps, I am trying to think about Islam, infrastructure, media, and technopolitics. And so, what I highlight in and through my work is how technopolitical experiments (navigation, urban planning, systems thinking, crowd management, and optimization) are making Mecca into an unmarked global city and a resource of the Saudi state and economy. Towards a literature on technopolitics, by and large this literature has tended towards more secular concerns. While there absolutely is a recourse to everyday ethics and morality, I am interested in how a set of technopolitical demands emerges in and out of religion and ritual itself. But what I ultimately show is how Meccan or Islamic technopolitics are increasingly entangled with secular technopolitical regimes and forms: the nation-state, the smart city, the start-up company, the university.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
OS: This article is based on my dissertation research—it is my first article based on that research. An earlier version of this article, however, focused on three distinct Meccan experiments, one geographic and logistical (the Makkah Techno Valley), the other scientific and architectural (the Hajj Research Center), but I also put forward an experiment that was literary and institutional. It concerns the writings of a journalist-novelist and pilgrim guide or mutawwif named Ahmad Al-Suba’i. Born in 1905, Al-Suba’i saw the rise and fall of competing sovereign regimes in Mecca: Ottoman, Hashemite, and Saudi. Moreover, during his time, the Saudi university system was becoming a fact on the ground. His writings called out for the new, communicating a deep frustration with the old, namely this guild of pilgrim guides known as tawafa.
As a mutawwif, Al-Suba’i was particularly troubled the intergenerational, cosmopolitan gift exchange and intimacy that defined this work at a mutawwif. He dreamed of hotel lobbies, receipts for services rendered, a salaried and university-trained cadre of mutawwif-workers—a syndicate. Fearful of tawafa’s ranks, Al-Suba’i published a policy paper disguised as a novel. Aspects of Al-Suba’i’s vision would ultimately come to pass, massifying pilgrim guides into regional institutions, but also making the mutawwif into at best a seasonal laborer and at worst a mere employee. And so, Al-Suba’i’s experimental novel as policy paper is part of this project of modernizing, bureaucratizing, what some call preserving tawafa. It should also be understood as part of a larger political and economic project of minimizing and reducing tawafa that intensifies in the Saudi era.
I produce this account here to give a sense of the breadth and elan of “experimental Mecca.” Mecca’s experimental quality is not just scientific or technopolitical but is also literary and institutional. I also include it here as it gives a broader sense of the kinds of experts and knowledge workers I attend to in my work—figures like these Meccan pilgrim guides, but also South Asian tech-workers, and European crowd scientists and traffic psychologists.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
OS: I hope this article will be read widely by students and scholars interested in Islam, Saudi Arabia, and the holy cities. I want to vivify the ways in which Mecca circulates as these seemingly unmarked knowledges and technologies of crowd management and logistics—this new and emerging hajj and umrah industry. In doing so, I try to take seriously and account for the technopolitical ambitions of this project—however religious, however secular. And while I want my readers to take seriously what gets made in Mecca as it were, I am also sensitive to how these alternate histories of technopolitics, knowledge production, expertise, but also cosmopolitan ideas of place, space, and belonging are increasingly submerged or silenced.
And so, while I am critical of how Mecca is being made to circulate as these “more secular” technologies of surveillance, crowd management, and logistics, I am also quite clearly attempting to make Mecca circulate in these secular ways myself. It is my hope that Mecca’s cosmopolitan histories, its status as a sanctuary, and the flashes of a moral techno-politics might offer us a way out of the impasses that structure our time.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OS: I am currently working on my book manuscript entitled, “Made in Mecca: Expertise, Techno-politics, and Hospitality in the Post-Oil Holy City.” I am hoping to have this finished in the new year. I am also returning to some creative projects right now. For long, I have wanted to put together a film based in and around practices of mountain destruction in Mecca. Mecca’s mountains are nothing short of the scene and setting of Islamic revelation, yet all around the holy city, the landscape is being flattened or modified. This is done in the name of urban development, normative vehicular traffic, and logistics, but also to increase the number of pilgrims. Importantly for my work, Meccan prestige and expertise was often framed in and through a knowledge of Mecca’s mountains and mountain ways. And while we talk a lot about urban destruction in Mecca, the ruination of traditional architecture and the like, this environmental question remains unanswered. This theme or problematic of mountain destruction haunts a lot of my writing; however, I have yet to find full expression for much of it. And so, I am interested in turning towards film, video, and photography to try to answer some of this.
Excerpt from the article (pp. 34-36)
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an ambitious plan to reengineer its social and economic life. This national transformation plan, known as Vision 2030, seeks to prepare the kingdom for a post-oil future. Coverage of Vision 2030 associates its “vision” with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and more cynically, with global consulting firms like McKinsey and Company. It pronounces a move from the “natural resource” of oil to “human resources.” It demands the Saudization of various industries and sectors. In the new campaign, Saudi Arabian citizens are to become the vanguard of a knowledge economy, acquiring new skills and using smart technologies. Saudization and other plans to diversify the economy are much older than Vision 2030. Moreover, similar vision campaigns are underway in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Global South. However habitual and globally ubiquitous, the “vision” of Vision 2030 animates, inspires, and coordinates everyday life in Saudi Arabia in ways that are unprecedented.
Commentators’ discussions of Vision 2030 tend to focus on dramatic public relations moves like the citizen-robot Sophia, the techno-futurism of urban development projects such as Neom and The Line, and breathless descriptions of the crown prince running the country “like a start-up.” But what these discussions often ignore is a more regional transformation happening around the holy city of Mecca and its attendant pilgrimage systems, hajj and ‘umra. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is planning to increase the number of annual overseas pilgrims from eight million to thirty million. Vision 2030 treats the burgeoning crowds in Mecca as another human resource. This new hajj and ‘umra industry presents us with an alternative grammar and temporality: while oil may be nearing its limits, hajj and ‘umra are nominally forever. Under this new scheme, Mecca’s formerly seasonal crowds will become a permanent feature. The exuberant claim that pilgrims will be flocking to the city “forever” belies a total transformation of ideas of labor, knowledge, and hospitality that will be necessary to turn them into a national economic resource. According to this logic, the city must be remade by new digital and smart technologies and a new kind of technopolitical expertise, as well as by an increasingly normative idea of hospitality.
This article considers two different but interrelated Meccan experiments: the Makkah Techno Valley (MTV) project and the Hajj Research Center (HRC). Initiated in 2011, the MTV project was planned as science and technology park—or, in more ambitious iterations of the plan, a smart city—owned by Umm al-Qura University, where tech workers would make and sell new techniques and technologies of crowd management, surveillance, and logistics. The HRC, on the other hand, was conceived earlier as an interdisciplinary research group attempting to plan the Islamic sanctuary. While it made a bid for independent status, the group was more formally based at King Abdulaziz University. These technopolitical experiments drew from different arrangements of the religious and the secular. They carried forth and advocated different political sensibilities, modes of problem solving, and aesthetics. They also revealed and reveled in different itineraries of knowledge production, expertise, and circulation. The MTV project made explicit many of the tensions that were more submerged in the HRC, especially those related to how to exploit and make productive a particular spatial and geographic tension. MTV spatialized technopolitics in the form of the smart city or, more modestly, the science and technology park. But more dramatically, it also made the Islamic sanctuary itself, its excesses and intensity, into a testing ground, a laboratory for these new-old sciences of crowd management, traffic management, and logistics. While the MTV project sets into motion a series of global translations, the HRC took up the challenge of Islamic design, aesthetics, and environments in an effort to develop “a Muslim solution to a Muslim problem.”
Between 2017 and 2019, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Jidda and Mecca. My fieldwork examined this emerging world of crowd scientists, engineers, and other hajj experts making smart technologies of pilgrim management. While conducting research, I realized that these new forms of expertise, entrepreneurship, and experimentation depend on and engage more Islamic ways of knowing and managing the hajj. My work thus also investigates explicitly Meccan modalities of knowledge work, namely tawafa, the ancient guild of pilgrim guides. Tawafa and the mutawwif (pilgrim guide, pl. mutawwifin) long defined life and labor in Mecca. The guild was open only to certain Meccan families that carried its mantle. But the Saudi state has progressively bureaucratized tawafa, eventually remaking it into seasonal employment. In 2019, a new law was approved by The Council of Ministers. It described a fundamental re-structuring of tawafa. According to the new law, the practice of tawafa was now open to any Saudi Arabian citizen operating under the auspices of a private company. For some Saudi Arabian citizens this was the end of “a sacred monopoly,” while for mutawwifin it marked their final dispossession as Meccans. The history and logics of tawafa inflected both the HRC and the MTV, including through the direct participation of mutawwifin.