What if Arabistan?
Two young Arab architects studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design are working to address political and social issues in the Gulf region through a radical thought experiment in urban planning. Hamed Bukhamseen from Kuwait and Ali Karimi from Bahrain have conceived an alternate future for six underutilized islands in the Gulf, concocting an urban vision of a new Arab Gulf nation, “Arabistan.” The reimagining of the archipelago is much more than a utopia in the mind of urban designers. It sheds light on the differences between the six Gulf Cooperation Council states and aims to strengthen Gulf identity by bypassing cultural, political, and social hurdles that the Gulf population presently faces.
The Master Plan
Most of the islands chosen in this project currently belong to GCC countries, but in their design the islands would comprise the autonomous state of Arabistan. Each of the islands serves different functions that address difficult social problems. In the master plan for Arabistan, the architects assigned a theme for every island, and each theme presents a solution to an important policy issue. According to Bukhamseen, “The positioning of these ideas on the numerous islands within the Gulf as part of this vision for the state of Arabistan allows for a distant critique of the current climate of the region.”
One of the islands would provide the first all-women highway so that Saudi women could drive freely. Another island was designed to host a museum of Gulf national movements, inspired by the imprisonment and exile of three Bahraini nationalists in Saint Helena during the British colonial period in the 1950s. Additionally, the Bahraini island Um al-Nassan (Mother of the Sleepy) would host a local alcohol distillery (Arak) and falconry activities to encourage leisure in Arab lands apart from visiting foreign malls. Maqlab Island was devised as a haven for undocumented residents and foreign workers who live in the Gulf, and it is situated right next to the FIFA World Cup Island, which was created primarily to circumvent the restriction on co-hosting the international football tournament. Finally, Preservation Island was dedicated to the cultural preservation of Gulf heritage, which the designers perceive as being suffocated by modern architecture.Arabistan, Between Utopia and Myopia
“We realize that some of our ideas could come across as absurd, but the point is to draw attention to the absurdity behind the conditions that led us to imagine these islands,” said Karimi. “Take the World Cup Island that we are proposing, for example. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has garnered a tremendous amount of criticism, from its myopic scale and intent, to its human rights violations. Due to the contentious nature of the World Cup we thought of rebranding the 2022 World Cup by having it spread to several other Gulf countries similar to the Belgium-Netherlands Euro Cup and the Korea-Japan World Cup. However, since co-hosting was banned by FIFA in 2004, Arabistan would be able to host the games in various countries without breaking the co-hosting rule. Each of the Gulf countries would donate an island to Arabistan to allow for the co-hosted World Cup to occur.” He continued that the islands contributed by these countries would be free of human rights violations.
In the case of Maqlab, the island would serve as a path to citizenship by hosting the stateless in the Gulf region. This was inspired by the plan of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to provide citizenship in the Comoros Islands to some of their undocumented residents, or bidun. By annexing Maqlab and opening an immigration center there to issue documentation to all residents of the Gulf as well as foreign laborers, the Gulf states would be able to circumvent international pressure to provide citizenship to the stateless, and permanent residency to foreign workers. With diplomatic and economic pacts agreed between Arabistan and the Gulf states, this citizenship would give them legal status and the right to reside and work within the Gulf. Through Maqlab, the architects are recognizing the legitimacy of the citizenship and residency requests, while highlighting the absurdity of the solution they propose because policies of the Gulf states should provide a path to citizenship rather than sending stateless residents to Comoros.
The architects are using the islands as a way to highlight the challenges for social change in the Gulf, but they also recognize the diverse set of sociopolitical issues that youth populations are facing in the Arab Gulf states. Bukhamseen and Karimi see a strong value in strengthening regional Gulf identity and reinventing it in modern terms. As a new neutral geographic space outside the current nation-state framework, Arabistan would offer the flexibility to resolve the long-standing problems of its primary stakeholding countries, and provide the youth with an alternate vision of the future.
Obviously Arabistan doesn’t offer realistic solutions, but it represents a creative enclave for political experiments. Bukhamseen stressed, “We can no longer look at ourselves within the confines of our border. We need to look further and expand these discussions on our identity and politics.” Both architects propose urban solutions to challenge what is accepted as cultural and political norms. By employing avant-garde concepts, they provoke discussion on much needed changes in the region.
With Arabistan, Bukhamseen and Karimi are demonstrating the moral agency of the architect. The islands function to combat a sense of powerlessness arising from a sociopolitical environment that is perceived as too complicated to change.
In the end, these are architectural and territorial visions that attempt to address the absurdity of many of the region’s problems. There is both cynicism and idealism in these provocations. According to Bukhamseen, “The idea that we can only address these problems through the proposition of a new country begs the question: Is the current insular national framework of the Gulf conducive to resolving its problems?” Ultimately, though, Bukhamseen and Karimi want more than to rest their ideas in a utopian space; they want to unleash a discussion in the public sphere. Arabistan is undoubtedly impossible to implement, but the ideas behind it cannot be contained.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a former research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and was a Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.