Far from prejudice, Saudi Arabia, a country on the move
Guest column by Gassan Anbar, François de la Chevalerie and Gilles Fiore
These days, Saudi Arabia doesn’t always get a good press. At the mere mention of it, unflattering remarks flourish: obscurantism and authoritarianism, a medieval world imprisoned by the deleterious effects of overflowing oil revenues. Add to this the fate reserved for women, between subjugation and submission. The outpouring of criticism against the Kingdom is so commonplace that hardly a day goes by without someone dropping an incidental, here and now, the ideal scapegoat.
This point of view deserves correction. If the country has long been closed, it is no longer closed. This is borne out by the fact that tourist visas can now be obtained instantly. No need for official letters of invitation to explore the ruins of Dir’iya or the historic city of Alula. From now on, everyone can make their own judgement, based on their own experience.
In the West, people worry about the status of Saudi women. Here, they’re on the lookout for anything. Here, they’re at the wheel or out in groups late at night. When they leave university, many of them take engineering courses. They’re eager to get to grips with new technologies. In the office, they speak up and make their mark. One woman heads a university; another sits on the board of directors of the central bank; others fly airliners. And here they are again, in the police and the army. In short, the appointment of Ms. Alazaz as Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Ministers is a clear sign of progress.
Standing on two legs, Arabia is no longer an immobile monarchy.
Instead of taking the easy way out, the country is promoting a paradigm shift in its economy by 2030. Rather than fossil fuels, the world of tomorrow is artificial intelligence. In Riyadh and Jeddah, this is well accepted. Projects abound. Technologies in the making are being investigated. Skills are being pooled.
Often derided for its lack of commitment to sustainable development, the Kingdom is actively involved in providing concrete solutions, such as the development of a storage system to trap CO2, food packaging made from biosourced plastic and the cleaning of solar panels. The result is a futuristic city on the shores of the Red Sea, a clean city with zero CO2 emissions.
In the world of Tech, Saudi Arabia is a stakeholder in the industrial adventures of the moment: electric cars, new materials, predictive medicine, deep learning, space conquest, industry 4.0, and so on.
As a result, while Startups are still converging on the Bay Area, Bangalore or Station F, they are now criss-crossing the desert.
And to bring things full circle, cultural festivals abound in Arabia. The world is celebrated in the diversity of its talents. The Riyadh Season and Tantora Winter in Alula are highlights. In addition to daring exhibitions, music also takes pride of place. While the Saudi scene welcomes traditional folklore, it also invites sopranos and DJs. At night, in Riyadh or Jeddah, life goes on until the wee hours of the morning.
This world is moving forward, but the Kingdom is not abandoning its traditions and customs. Men still wear the thawb, women the abāyah, but in the end everyone is free to choose how they dress.
Certainly, there are still flaws, but the movement has taken hold. From then on, the road to « Arabia Felix », as it was called by the Romans, was a must, the time to share a moment with the Saudis, and to get to know each other better. It was then that vocations were born. Some would choose to set up shop in this land of opportunity, so close and so accessible.
CAN AI UNFURLING WAVE ENDANGER FAITH?
De François de la Chevalerie
Artificial intelligence, the watchword of today’s world! This post-industrial fury brings together a myriad tools and technologies that would be apparently consistent with the Islam stance. This is apparently so true that one could assess that the current Tech revolution is halal (permissible) so long that it provides an immense benefit and blessing to the people.
Indeed, Islam has spurred science and technology with constancy as evidenced by the āyah (verse) which calls for the use of all Earth’s resources.
Under the Umayyads of Córdoba, the Abbadids of Seville, the Samanids, the Ziyarids, the Buyids in Persia, the Abbasid Caliphate and beyond, spanning the period roughly between 786 and 1258, Islamic scientific achievements encompassed a wide range of subjects.
Islam has long been seen as the flagship of innovation since Al-Razi’s laboratory apparatus of the 9th century to the water-raising machine Al-Jazari developed in the 13th century and the introduction of the concept of algorithms by Al-Khwarizmi. The contribution in mathematics was crucial in the period known as the Islamic Golden Age.
However, there is a big rub. AI inexorable advance might jeopardize religious and philosophical foundations. Not now but within decades.
UNMANAGEABLE AI DEFINITION
As for now, there is not an Artificial intelligence internationally accepted definition. It may be noted the diversity of its meaning depending on the approach adopted and the objectives in view. Generally speaking, as a sixty-year-old discipline, AI is a set of theories and techniques implemented to produce machines capable of simulating human intelligence.
No-one can dispute AI paradigm shift. Thanks to its intrusive algorithms, it covers it all, since our daily needs, even the most intimate, to any collective challenges. Moreover, some AI gurus proclaim that their final intention is to dismantle any supposed old-fashioned thoughts such as the religious faith. When the time comes, AI will replace it all by a belief pegged to algorithms. As the science fiction writer Asimov once said: “each computer prepares the next computer, until it becomes god”. This is the ultimate arrogance.
TACKLE THE PROBLEM
In Islam, the word bid’ah بدعة; refers to innovation. However, the term is not found in the Qur’an. Thus, this gives scope for debate. For some, there isn’t any problem. They are only “Bidar Hasanah”, saying otherwise, « Good Innovations ». For others, there is a risk. All change is innovation (Bid’a) and all innovation (Bid’a) could be a misguidance, and all misguidance leads to Hell.
Common sense states that our lives should not be the product of a super-simulation machine, cleared of any emotion thereby distorting the result of happenstance. We should not see the unstoppable march forwards towards an all-powerful AI as a foregone conclusion. We must resist toe-to-toe.
From the inner depths of ourselves, we have the resources to deal with the issue. Among our strengths, religious faith is a solid asset. By joining our forces, we can keep our core principles and ancestral values. Therefore, we can keep out a spirit of submission. The heart of our identity will beat the odds. And remember, God never places us on the level of a power struggle with those who do not know him. This is it !