Geniuses and glass palaces: how the dystopian Saudi desert city verges on the occult

Saudi Arabia’s The Line project has been lauded as the more futuristic of the world, and rightly so. The walled, vertical smart city will run entirely on renewable energy and aims to revolutionize urban planning, putting humans first.

With a capacity of around nine million inhabitants, the city of two mirrored skyscrapers will stretch over 106 miles in the northwest of the kingdom and will be situated within the future NEOM city, which is part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin’s ambitious Vision2030 project. Salman. Financed in part by the Public Investment Fund (PFI), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, The Line is expected to be completed in 2025.

“At the launch of The Line last year, we pledged to bring about a civilizational revolution that puts people first, based on a sea change in urban planning,” Bin Salman said in July. However, instead of the utopian image projected and promoted by Riyadh, the Line has been described by critics as dystopian and resembling a science fiction film.

Much has already been written about the controversy surrounding the city’s operation as a state surveillance center, especially as Artificial Intelligence (AI) will form the backbone of its infrastructure, packed with “countless sensors, cameras, and facial recognition technology.”

However, this cyberpunk megaproject is also potentially disturbing for another interesting, albeit overlooked, reason: the hidden dimension related to the Islamic belief in the jinns (geniuses) in the ultraconservative country.

In the holy city of Mecca there is still the Mosque of the Genii, one of the oldest in the city, where, according to the narrations, a group of jinn swore allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) after hearing him recite the Koran. There is also an area known locally as Wadi Al Jinnabout 30 kilometers northwest of Madinah, a mysterious valley famous for the peculiar occurrences of vehicles that apparently move without the driver being behind the wheel, although scientific research has deduced that the cause of these optical illusions are high magnetic fields of the area.

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The belief The existence of jinn is indisputable to most of the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, including the minority of “Koranists” who rely solely on the Holy Qur’an as their source of authority in Islam. This is because these created beings are mentioned multiple times in divine scripture.

They are also mentioned in the narrations of the Prophet. The jinns are beings invisible to the human eye made of “smokeless fire” whose world exists parallel to ours; the name derives from the arabic root jnn which denotes that which is concealed or concealed. Just like humans, they can be between believers and non-believers and are capable of both good and bad deeds.

Recorded in the pre-Islamic literature of the region, jinns have captivated and continue to captivate the popular imagination, whether in the folklore and cultural “jinn stories” that continue to permeate much of the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia, or even in the West, not only among the Muslim diaspora but also in the arts and literature contemporary.

The abode of the jinn is especially fascinating, as they are believed to live mostly in very remote areas, including the desert. According to Professor Ali A Olomi, a historian and scholar of the Middle East and Islam at Loyola Marymount University, some jinns choose to live among humans while others live in a hidden kingdom next to ours.

A legendary jinn is said to have an “enormous palace of carnelian and gold.” We can find a similar mention in Western creative literature, in the Oz books, for example, with a recurring character, jinnicky the Red Genie, described as living in a “red glass castle”. In the relatively recent book The Golem and the Djinnione of the protagonists, a jinn, lives in a crystal palace in the Syrian desert.

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Olomi has also pointed out that in folklore the jinns are also known as builders, and they are attributed the construction of many cities and monuments of the ancient world. Perhaps this is influenced by the mention in the Koran that the Prophet Sulaiman (peace be upon him) ordered the geniuses who built a great palace with a glass floor. in the current Omanthere is even a fortress and a city called Bahla, which is believed by the locals to have been a city of jinns.

The appearance of the jinn in the saudi news it was not strange or unprecedented before June 2017, when Bin Salman became the de facto ruler and began to apply his reformist and modernizing project. However, earlier that year, Al-Arabiya did a short report on the town of Laynah, in northern Saudi Arabia, which is “famous for its miraculous water wells dating back to the reign of the Prophet Suleiman.” Legend has it that the wells numbered 300 and were carved out of the solid rocky soil of Laynah by King Suleiman’s army of jinn to provide the king’s army with water.”

However, occult beings made a slight return to the news back in 2019, when it was reported that Saudi authorities had begun promoting and developing pre-Islamic sites amid efforts to boost the kingdom’s tourism industry. It was all part of the effort to diversify the economy away from oil revenues.

Al-Ula, in northern Saudi Arabia, is about 300 kilometers from NEOM, and its most prominent landmark is the rock-cut tombs of Madain Saleh, which are expected to attract millions of tourists. The initiative was received with disapproval by some members of the clerical establishment, who have traditionally discouraged Muslims from visiting these types of places, considering them ruins of cursed nations of the past or haunted by jinn. At the time, Al-Monitor noted that beliefs about the presence of jinn in desolate archaeological sites are prevalent throughout the Middle East, but “don’t often take on as sinister a tone as in Saudi Arabia.”

For the Saudis, Al-Ula and NEOM represent The old and the new; ancient and modern: “Both cities are centerpieces of the crown prince’s determination to grow and diversify the nation’s economy, moving it away from reliance on fossil fuels, and living examples of how the grand strategic plan focuses not not only in building the future of the nation, but also in safeguarding its past”.

As a core belief, the jinn will continue to figure in Saudi society and culture, even as the country is becoming more secular as it undergoes rapid social transformation and modernization. In the case of The Line, and unlike the Valley of the Geniuses, the driverless cars will be explained through the existence of AI and not supernatural events, and the “glass palace” will most likely be built by cheap workers, foreigners and poorly paid, and not by invisible beings. However, the success of the project is far from certain, and already has several problems. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what future accounts may emerge from the predicted glowing structure at the northern edge of the Arabian Desert.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of East Monitor.


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Omar has a Master’s degree in International Security and Global Governance from the University of London, Birkbeck. He has traveled throughout the Middle East, including studying Arabic in Egypt as part of his undergraduate degree. His interests include the politics, history and religion of the MENA region.

Geniuses and glass palaces: how the dystopian Saudi desert city verges on the occult