Horizons - Rahel Aima - The Khaleeji Ideology

The Khaleeji Ideology

Rahel Aima

Rendering of Falconcity of Wonders. Source: Falconcity of Wonders.

October 2022

In Dubai’s industrial district of Al Quoz is a museum of failed futures. More precisely, it’s a warehouse filled with 3D-printed architectural models. Here, you’ll find scale miniatures of many of Dubai’s most iconic projects, including the ones that never got built. Or so they say. I’ve never been to this apocryphal warehouse; I’m told they are cagey about visitors, as if the taint of unrealized projects might somehow seep out and infect the city. I imagine it’s not terribly exciting in practice, dusty maquettes swirling with unlubricated sales pitches, but I like knowing that it’s there.

These unfinished projects include Dynamic Tower, a writhing, sinuous solar and wind-powered affair in which each floor rotates at its own speed around a central core. There is the International Chess City, an assemblage of thirty-two monochrome towers shaped like pawns, knights, bishops, and so on. My favorite is the shanzhai fever dream called Falconcity of Wonders, which was to feature scaled-up versions of Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, and most pleasingly, a replica of “Old Dubai” too. Thus far, only one—the “Western Residence”—falcon wing of villas has been built, but its skeletal roads outline a headless avian form.1

All of these projects pale in comparison to NEOM, one of the flagship gigaprojects (after Bigness comes Giganess) of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s roadmap to diversifying its economy away from the energy sector. Qatar and Bahrain each have a Vision 2030 too, Kuwait orients itself towards Vision 2035, and Oman aims for Vision 2040. Not to be outfutured, the UAE—where “city” generally means “freezone”—has several such plans that chart its strategy leading up to UAE Centennial 2071. As detailed on a government portal, these include the Emirati Interplanetary Mission 2028, which will explore the asteroid belt between the rocky inner planets and the gaseous outer ones; the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy 2030; UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence 2031; UAE Water Security Strategy 2031; the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050; and the Food Security Strategy 2051. And under the auspices of Mars 2117, the UAE aims to establish the world’s first inhabitable settlement on the Red Planet.

Each of these plans are consultant-driven “blue sky thinking” made into national roadmaps. As such, while their details differ they share a basic scaffolding: shift the extractive infrastructure from hydrocarbons to data, and build smart, nominally sustainable cities that hew as close as possible to the idea of fully-automated luxury environmentalism.2 I’ve come to think of this phenomenon as the Khaleeji Ideology. Simply put, the Khaleeji Ideology is a mode of state-sponsored futurecasting that emerged from the Gulf in the early decades of the twenty-first century. It embraces technocratic solutions to ecological threats, and champions a self-fulfilling pragmatism: technology might not be able to save the world, but perhaps it can maintain life as we enjoy it in the present.

The entrance to Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Rahel Aima, 2022.

“One day, all cities will be like this”

Back in terrestrial Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s banner sustainable future city has quietly been taken off ice. Announced in 2006, the car-free Masdar City was supposed to be constructed in eight years, before the global financial crash intervened and has since become a go-to-example of yet another failed utopian experiment. (During a recent visit, a graphic timeline of the project’s development in a tepid basement exhibition unsurprisingly suggested no such break.) It’s not that it never got built: it has been partially occupied since the first phase was finished in 2010, and current estimations put its completion at 2030. But it houses a scant few thousand residents compared to its initial projections of 40-50,000, most of whom work in its renewable energy startups and research institutes or attend the Mohammed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence. And the much-vaunted driverless PRT or personal rapid transport is in practice a dinky, cute uwu-energy shuttle bus between parking lots.

Perhaps Masdar’s only crime is that it did not scale, despite its tagline that “one day, all cities will be like this.” The parking lot, hung with banners exhorting visitors to “expect more,” leads onto a spacious park with a restaurant, playground, medicinal plant maze, and farmer’s markets, and Mai (or “water”—“masdar” itself means “source”) Tower, which harvests potable water from the air. The Foster + Partners-designed built-up area itself is nice enough, all terracotta meets metallic cladding replete with obligatory mashrabiya screens in both materials. A teflon windtower and narrowly-spaced buildings create a perpetually-shaded calm, and the watery theme carries through to the dorms, which have names like Hydropower, Geothermal, or Tidal Power Residence. Functionally, it feels like an attractively-landscaped office park with some dorms, apartments, and coffee shops, disappointing only in its sheer banality. Others may yet get bioluminescent algae and artificial moons, but Masdar is the NEOM we have at home.

Is Masdar sustainable? In her 2019 ethnography Spaceship in the Desert, Gökçe Günel writes that “The idea of ‘technical adjustments’ offers a mode of response for dealing with climate change independent of ethical, moral, and political entailments … as a means for vaulting ahead to a future where humans will continue to enjoy technological complexity without interrogating existing social, political, and economic relations.” Crucially, she identifies that this kind of project works to “produce and offer a status quo utopia, creating technological innovations with the goal of preserving the present during a time of ecological destruction.” Günel is writing about Masdar, but the same holds true in future cities across the Gulf, and even farther afield.

It is no accident that these utopian ecocities pop up in specific areas of the world. The now-abandoned Dongtan on the outskirts of Shanghai was to be another such example of a zero-everything ecocity. But it’s worth parsing the overwhelmingly Western schadenfreude when such projects almost inevitably stall. Why might we understand an experimental planned settlement in Arizona as an arcology, but NEOM, the Line, and Masdar are always already failed future cities? After all, what do utopian cities leave behind? Blurry hypertrophic scars on Google Maps, some urban ruins, some tchotchkes—all I remember of Arcosanti were the carefully patinated bells—and hopefully no messianic cults or massacres. One or a few big ideas at best.

Today, the ongoing climate catastrophe has become so severe as to be unavoidable. As I write this, 75% of Pakistan is underwater with over thirty million people displaced, and the historic drought in Europe has revealed hunger stones, ancient hamlets, undetonated bombs, and several Roman ruins. And while it is far from being the biggest driver of climate change, computing and other digital technologies increasingly contribute to ecological devastation through the bloody extraction of rare earth elements required by LCDs, LEDs, and computer chips, to say nothing of their vast electricity requirements.

As such, the environment is an important plank in both the Khaleeji Ideology and the projects that result from it. The Emirates Mars Mission, which launched in July 2020, has a climatic focus, aiming to build “the first complete picture of the Martian atmosphere.” Essentially, it’s a souped-up weather satellite. With it, scientists hope to understand how Mars became the desiccated, inhospitable environment it is today, and model the possible consequences of Earth’s own climate change. Closer to home, our governments are busy cloud seeding to make it rain, and Masdar City, NEOM, and The Line are all ambitiously billed as sustainable, zero carbon, zero waste, car-free smart cities. How can one call for any kind of futurism when the Earth itself has no future?

Many of these megaprojects might never be completed. At some level, it doesn’t matter. Like that Al Quoz warehouse it’s enough to know that they are there, like an emotional support stack of blank notebooks—or in this region, tissue boxes. More importantly, they are too big to fail—too future to fail. Elsewhere, the future might be unevenly distributed, as William Gibson once said. But in the Gulf, the Khaleeji Ideology comes for everyone.

Mohammed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Rahel Aima, 2022.

From One Ideology to Another

In 1995, media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron published an essay in Mute on Silicon Valley’s unholy synthesis of neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and techno-optimism. The “Californian Ideology” combined “the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies” all bound together with a belief that technology can liberate us: turn on, tune in, drop out, log on. The Californian Ideology was a fiber-optic cable that encircled the world, painting an idealized picture of tech-boom San Francisco that glossed over the carceral capitalism, ecological devastation, and mass displacement that was, even according to its authors, its bedrock.3

Despite orienting itself towards a techtopic future, the Californian Ideology was explicitly nostalgic in its longing for a return to Jeffersonian democracy, just transposed into cyberspace. Of course, Jeffersonian freedom of expression for white people went hand in hand with slavery and genocide. Jefferson himself relied on then-novel technologies like dumbwaiters to mediate discomfort and render invisible the enslaved people who worked in his household. Barbrook and Cameron even note how the Californian Ideology’s “utopian fantasy of the West Coast depends upon its blindness towards—and dependence on—the social and racial polarization of the society from which it was born… In the late-twentieth century, technology is once again being used to reinforce the difference between the masters and the slaves.”

Sound familiar?

There are many overlaps between 1990s Silicon Valley and the Arabian Gulf today, such as the use of eminent domain in Diriyah or invisibilized labor in the form of a labor sponsorship system that, like the H1-B visa system in the United States, binds foreign workers to often exploitative jobs across income levels.4 And ribboned through both is the same enthusiastic technophilia, just with its parameters updated for a new age: instead of Linux, the World Wide Web, and other 1990s techs, we now have mixed reality, neural interfaces, and blockchain everything. Sweeping social and legal reforms in the UAE and KSA augur a relative social liberalization, at least on paper.

There is, however, a major difference that distinguishes these urban experiments in the Gulf. Under the Californian Ideology, the collective liberation espoused by 1960s Bay Area radicals turns into an ethos of individual freedom bought and sold on the market. But under the Khaleeji Ideology, individual empowerment gives way to the progress of the state. Like the Yippies, Panthers, and the Weather Underground, the Khaleeji Ideology espouses the collective, but replaces community with the nation, however contingently (or exclusively) defined. The technocratic managerialism so beloved in Silicon Valley here assumes its final form of bureaucracy, albeit streamlined and hyper-efficient. When the Gulf strides into the future it doesn’t do it alone, but hand in hand with smart government.

Put another way, there’s a flattening at work in which government becomes synonymous with future and vice versa. In 2017, the UAE appointed a Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, whose title was later augmented with “Digital Economy, and Remote Work.” Following a 2020 cabinet reshuffle, the Minister of Happiness, a post introduced in 2016, is now the Minister for Government Development and the Future. Tellingly, what in 2015 was teased as “The Museum of Future Government” finally opened, after much delay in 2022 as simply, “The Museum of the Future,” a calligraphy-covered ovoid that looks like something a Yeerk might hatch out of.5 Can there be a future without government? Not here.

Driverless personal rapid transport in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Rahel Aima, 2022.

Plus-ça-change Futurism

Computer speakers used to announce that you were about to receive a call with a few seconds of stuttering static. In the heady pre-crash late 2000s, Falconcity of Wonders felt like both the apex and the last gasps of an older aesthetic regime predicated on importing—interpretively reproducing, more accurately—the rest of the world, however deliciously garbled the result. Why visit Giza when we have the pyramids, in the form of an Ancient Egyptian afterlife-themed mall, at home?6

The Khaleeji Ideology extends this shanzhai logic by upholstering the aesthetics of Western sci-fi over an armature that looks to simply reproduce the present, like the mise-en-abyme of an infinity mirror. While the Californian Ideology’s nostalgia is political and structural, with its longing for (an idealized) Jeffersonian democracy, the Khaleeji Ideology’s nostalgia is entirely aesthetic, harking back to the Space Age, and the future-of-the-past as imagined by the Western consultants and architects who dream it up.

In retrospect, we can understand Gulf Futurism, the short-lived 2010s aesthetic movement coined by artist and writer Sophia Al Maria, as weak signal detection and a visual indexing of the Khaleeji Ideology’s early years. Both share an accelerationist futurist imaginary that looks more to Italian Futurism’s fetishization of progress and speed than the representative redress of Indigenous or Afrofuturism. What I wrote in 2013 about Gulf Futurism seems to hold true for the Khaleeji Ideology too:

Gulf futurism offers no new imagery to displace the hegemonic ones in power—instead setting up the scaffolding to reproduce the injustices, structural degradation, and racial erasures of the present… At base, Gulf futurism is “plus ça change futurism,” all wrapped up in what a friend has dubbed “flying force fields of neo-Arabness”… How can it be sci-fi without social justice?7

But the Khaleeji Ideology’s unflagging optimism tonally distinguishes it from Gulf Futurism’s nervy, apocalyptic fever dreams, as does its scale, which zooms out from the former’s very human perspective and emphasis on an explicitly Arab, Muslim protagonist. Instead, the Khaleeji Ideology emphasizes the language of tolerance, multiculturalism, and coexistence, welcoming everyone into its fold.8

While parallels with what Günel would describe as a “status quo utopia” are striking, it is important to emphasize that despite this technocracy, whether it relies on scientists and engineers or consultants, the Khaleeji Ideology is most effective on an aesthetic level. At risk of being reductive, the image—the consultant-provided slide deck, the breathy reportage whether gushing or snippy, the evidence of a ruler’s vision—is paramount. It is, with apologies to Guy Debord, capital accumulated to the point where it becomes render. Advertising, in the form of lens-flared billboards that line the highways (or constant ads for AlUla at local gyms) work to reinforce the vision. And while media may help to popularize the Khaleeji Ideology as a soft power generator abroad, the most important audiences remain the ones at home.

Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Rahel Aima, 2022.

Semiotic Reduction

When I first read Barbrook and Cameron’s essay, I wondered why they called it the Californian Ideology. Why inculpate the whole state instead of just Silicon Valley or even the Bay Area? Many years later, it makes sense. Every ideology needs a dream, and the golden hour fantasy of the Sunshine State and its unfettered lifestyle—not to mention the cultural memory of the Gold Rush—is what gives the Californian Ideology its particular sheen. Similarly, the Khaleeji Ideology is something that comes mostly out of the cities Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh (albeit ventriloquized elsewhere in KSA), and to a lesser degree these days, Doha.9 But it too relies on the get-rich-quick allure of the Gulf as a whole, the fast cars and glitzy malls and high octane petroglamor, the you think money can’t buy you happiness? 7bb come to Dubai. As such, Dubai, and its mode of urban development, becomes a synecdoche for the Gulf as a whole.

In 2004, Yasser Elsheshtawy coined the term “Dubaization” to describe the city’s particular brand of rapidly-developed, spectacular, non-contextual architecture and its influence (and increasingly, direct export through Emirati megadevelopers) on other cities.10 I would add that Dubai is a city explicitly built for an aerial perspective, from the drone’s eye view beloved of tourism videos to the satellite imagery that best shows off its mimetic islands dredged out of the sea which are visible from the Moon. I imagine the UAE’s future Martian allies, sometime around the year 2117, zooming in on the Earth until they find Dubai and its seen-from-space pictographic shorthand. Two and a half palm trees, a map of the world, and a bit further inland, a tiny single falcon wing.

While intended to open up a sociological critique, Dubaization mostly provided language for the Dark Underbelly of Dubai-type takes like Mike Davis’s embarrassingly orientalist description of the city as “Albert Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby.” Among the most valuable responses to emerge came from Fadi Shayya, who wrote in 2013 about the way that the Dubai model emphasizes density despite having no shortage of free land:

I would argue, however, that the scale and density of this clustering—the entirety of Dubai—against the once empty desert and seascapes—the much cited nothingness of Dubai—is what gives meaning to Dubaization… [It] is a semiotic reduction. It is the urban fantasy of spectacular development in post-oil Dubai which nevertheless requires the spatial fantasy of pre-oil times to exist.11

The construction of Dubai, then, is explicitly one of contrast: ancient (or surface-treated to appear so) pasts and extraterrestrial futures; seemingly solar-sintered towers glinting against expanses of sand and sea; hot, soupy exteriors and perfectly-chilled, hermetically sealed interiors. Meanwhile, containment and concentration operates on both a spatial and imagistic level, not unlike the Khaleeji Ideology’s linguistic elision in which “future” becomes government. We see the same radical condensation in The Line which asks the public to “imagine a traditional city and consolidate its footprint” with enjoyably Mary Poppins-like animations of everything flying obediently into place.12

Abdullah AlOthman, Geography of Hope (2022), AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Rahel Aima.

Green Mirror

Notably, many of these megaprojects in Saudi Arabia are clad in mirrors, not for solar farming so much as aesthetic reasons. In conversation, Ali Karimi of Civil Architecture points towards “the mirror as future, affect, and environment in Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi.” It’s an insight which highlights one way that Saudi projects differ visually from those in the UAE, where glass cladding feels more retro. In the Saudi art world, an analogous theme of mirage or reflection has become popular again, like with Abdullah AlOthman’s Geography of Hope (2022) seeming to morph between shimmering pool and oil slick, providing a beautifully chimeric, if overly literal interpretation of the exhibition theme of “mirage.”

Rather than shooting for visual bombast, projects like The Line and the especially beautiful Maraya concert hall in AlUla—the world’s largest mirrored building—employ a frameless technique that make them recede into the desert as if they were always already there.13 When we look at the renders and videos of The Line, it is always depicted as running through pristine, untouched wilderness: the low-intervention wine of iconic architecture that isn’t set off by the landscape but instead sighs into it. While much of Maraya’s appeal lies in the stunning rocky landscape that is reflected in its facade, the kind I imagine that moves people to oil painting, it too relies on the perceived vacuum, the landscape-as-framing-device that Shayya so cogently identified.

Maraya Concert Hall in AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Source: Mirage.

You know how glasses cloud up when you step into the summer heat, or how moisture blooms across your windshield—and will one day bead down a 170-kilometer-long mirror—when there’s a contrast between interior and exterior, shell and core? This condensation of moisture, of space, of meaning, is the Khaleeji Ideology, which takes the logic of Dubaization and spores it across the Gulf. But while Dubaization provides us with the color palette of silver, beige, and blue—albeit with generous daubs of ochre and sienna in Maraya’s case—the color of the Khaleeji Ideology is decidedly green. The acid green of chromakey, the hacker green of a terminal screen, the subtle green of glass, which intensifies with an infinity mirror effect; the greens of astroturf and of lawns and golf courses maintained with desalinated water.

In the introduction of his remarkable color ethnography Paradoxes of Green, Gareth Doherty discusses how greening the desert becomes a moral imperative in Bahrain, despite the considerable resources irrigation requires. He writes:

Landscape, in Bahrain, as I came to understand it, is a word mostly associated with the contrast of constructed green to an indigenous arid environment… [N]ew urban developments were often preceded by green landscape: it was common to “green the desert” where buildings were meant to go before the buildings got built. This surprising sequence of construction would tend to support Charles Waldheim’s claim that landscape “replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”14

Following Waldheim, we can think of projects like Masdar and The Line not as built environments but rather landscape architecture. Because—and this is important—the Khaleeji Ideology does not build so much as geoengineer, whether it is raising islands from the deeps or announcing new ecocities. Rather than think of NEOM as a megacity, then, we should be considering it as analogous to a megastructure, a large arcology-like frame, which as Fumihiko Maki noted in 1964, “has been made possible by present day technology. In a sense it is a man-made feature of the landscape.”15

Ultimately, the Khaleeji Ideology is a terraforming project that transforms the Gulf, and the image of the Gulf, from the first person-shooter Americanized POV of the Gulf War media coverage and later video game into a Sid Meier-franchise turn-based strategy game in which the turns never expire. The Khaleeji Ideology may collapse “future” and “government,” but it requires the kind of government that operates with the tech logic of a frictionless experience. One man, one vision, one government to carry it out, and people from everywhere else to build it—not just as temporary workers but future residents too. As David Ben-Gurion famously put it, “After all, there is room for only one Prime Minister, but for those who make the desert bloom there is room for hundreds, thousands, and even millions.” I’m left with another line from Doherty: “The question is not if but how, and where, the state will grow and how green that growth will be.”16


This “Western Residence” features houses in one of five themes: the standard Arabesque “Moroccan Mansion,” the pan-Spanish conquest “Andalusian,” which integrates both southern Spanish and Pre-Columbian styles, the Eastern Seaboard-inspired “New World,” the crisply incongruous “Aegean” and “Santa Fe,” which vaguely gestures at both adobe and Minions. The as-yet unbuilt Eastern Residence villas and Saam Vega, a pyramid of hotel apartments—”an ancient wonder, rediscovered for a modern lifestyle” are currently being sold.


Qatar’s is called Lusail, for example, while Oman has several on the way and Bahrain plans to construct five new cities on islands dredged out of the sea, in a move that will increase the tiny nation’s landmass by 60%. It’s worth emphasizing here that “city” doesn’t connote urban agglomeration so much as a “multi-use real-estate development as masterplanned by a single firm” that blurs the difference between scales. Sometimes a city is a single building.


In The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers and the High-Tech Global Economy (2002), Sun-Hee Park and David Pellow effectively chart the environmental racism that has underwritten the area since the days of the Spanish Conquest.


It should be noted that in the UAE, the recent introduction of permanent residency-adjacent schemes like the 5-year Green Visa and 10-year Golden Visa, which allow the right to live and freely move jobs though no path to citizenship, removes this aspect for some.


Rahel Aima, “Museum of Future Government,” ArteEast, 2015, . See Museum of the Future, .


See Wafi, .


Scott Smith, “Ethnic Futurism In The Gulf,” The Sigers, July 13, 2013, .


The introduction of VAT—in 2018 in the UAE and KSA and 2019 in Bahrain, with a common GCC framework expected to follow—and of corporate tax, from 2023 in the UAE, are working to reshape the region’s image as a tax-free paradise. But the rhetoric of “welcoming everyone” is not just legal with regards to permanent residence schemes, but very much in the language and visuals of these projects too. In the UAE, the core values-to-government-ministry pipeline is especially strong. In 2016, the MInistry of Tolerance was formed, and renamed the Ministry of Tolerance and Coexistence in 2020.


It is worth noting too that in contrast to the much-publicized social liberation happening in its GCC neighbors, the more politically liberal Kuwait is on an entirely different, increasingly conservative trajectory. We might map this to its quasi-democratic model that reflects the rising tide of conservatism around the world, even as it feels like a congealing of Gulf Futurism, as if the deep trauma of the Gulf War has finally metastasized.


I think here some favourite lines from J.G. Ballard from The Atrocity Exhibition which suggest to me that the hallmark lack of context that El Sheshtawy identified is very much a feature not a bug: “Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, stands outside time. It’s no coincidence that religious leaders emerge from the desert. Modern shopping malls have much the same function.”


Fadi Shayya, Speculations and Questions on Dubaization,” THE STATE, January 2013, p. 100–104.


See “NEOM | What is the line?,” YouTube, .


There is a marked emphasis on archaeological discovery and seamlessly suturing the present with the ancient civilizations that inhabited the area several thousand years ago, most notably in AlUla with its remarkably preserved Nabatean tombs and rock art. Particularly fascinating are the discovery of mustatil, or rectangular structures in northwest Saudi Arabia, which are believed to be remnants of a prehistoric cattle cult.


Gareth Doherty, Paradoxes of Green (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).


Fumihiko Maki, Nurturing Dreams: Collected Essays on Architecture and the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).



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Rahel Aima is an art critic, writer, and editor based between Brooklyn and Dubai.


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