It is common in Middle Eastern design to evoke images of a more sustainable past in order to justify a less sustainable present, and nowhere is this more true than in Saudi Arabia. The winning proposal for the Celebration Hall of Riyadh submitted by Studio Schiattarella and Tecturae has used the symbolism of a Bedouin Tent “as a starting point the “signs” of the Saudi cultural identity, or rather the formal elements that represent it symbolically.” But given its huge wealth and consistently obese architecture projects, we have to ask: what true Bedouin values do the Saudis continue to display today?
The modest desert dweller
The Bedouin people originate from the Arabian Peninsula and there are still strong tribal connections in Saudi Arabia today, but a true “desert dweller” leads a modest, nomadic lifestyle.
According to the Joshua Project, “Bedouin life is generally pastoral, herding camels, sheep, goats and cattle. They normally migrate seasonally, depending on grazing conditions. In winter, when there is some rain, they migrate deeper into the desert. In the hot, dry summer time, they camp around secure water sources.”
In Saudi Arabia, members of the wealthier classes live in veritable mansions and enjoy absurd excesses that most genuine Bedouins would completely dismiss.
In a recent CNN piece about the Bedouins who protect Jordan’s archaeological gem, Petra, Um Mohammed said of the harsh desert environment “My happiness is here. I love this place,” adding that “I walk around in these lands, these open lands. No one tells me what to do, (I) am by myself.”
In the proposal listed on Arch Daily, Studio Schiattarella and Tecturae claim that “The bedouin tent was chosen as an icon and representation of the culture of Riyadh not only for its aesthetic characteristics but for the significance and values it represents in Saudi society.”
The values of a true Bedouin
But does that society still exist? Like their neighbors in the United Arab Emirates, the average Saudi can’t even be convinced to use their legs to get anywhere much less trek across the desert in search of water.
And their hospitality towards strangers is becoming increasingly suspect. In 2008, The Telegraph reported that foreigners are 8 times as likely to be executed in Saudi Arabia as their own nationals.
A real Bedouin, such as those living on the first sustainable Bedouin Farm Wadi Attir in the Negev desert, use only the resources they need and have a keen relationship with nature. Our own Karen reported at the end of last year that the farm’s goals and values include:
- Maximizing the use of renewable, clean sources of energy;
- Striving for zero waste;
- Operating a just, self-sufficient, and productive economy;
- Emphasizing the importance of biodiversity and showing deep respect for animals;
- Collaborative, equitable and communal living that empowers both individuals and the overall community.
These are traditional Bedouin values. The earth comes first and humans have to adapt to the existing conditions, but this is not how Saudi Arabia’s elite live.
People who live in the Gulf have among the world’s biggest carbon footprints because they use more energy and water than they can possibly sustain. And since they can’t grow their own food, they are partially responsible for the forced relocation of thousands of Ethiopians whose land is being grabbed for grow rice for the desert country.
While we quite like the renders published on Arch Daily for the new Celebration Hall of Riyadh, we have grave doubts that this project will adequately represent the country’s true Bedouin past.
:: Arch Daily
More on Saudi Arabia Architecture and the Bedouins: