The land between sacred places and high technology

DrDesert landscape passes at breakneck speed. All you see is an ocher surface meeting a sky blue surface. Outside there is an excruciating heat. summer in Saudi, temperatures around the 50°C mark. Air conditioning is stable, and the buggies moderate nicely. Nor do you notice the speed with which the Haramain Express zips through the wasteland: from Mecca to Medina, about 450 kilometers, the skinny high-speed train takes less than two and a half hours. Roll into glittering train stations that look like fallen space stations from the future. It is a prestigious multi-billion dollar project tailored to the kingdom’s ambitions: high-tech connects sacred sites.

The train is not just a magnet for the hordes of pilgrims who flock to Saudi Arabia year after year. Business travelers also appreciate the Hallows Express. “People are starting to realize that it’s more comfortable than driving or flying,” says one insurance worker. But even for him, the trip is anything but routine. He is amazed not only by the new mode of travel, which takes him to his destination twice as fast as his car, but above all by the speed with which the country has changed.

“The whole country is one big disco!”

About six years ago, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin SalmanMohammed bin Salman briefly announced Vision 2030, which aims to modernize Saudi Arabia, open up its society, and make its economy independent of oil revenues. He prescribed a violent cure for the country. Its results overwhelm even people who have long yearned for change. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of it,” the insurance broker says in Al Haramain Express that can be heard over and over again – from artists and businessmen in big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh or from coffee growers in the provinces.

Passengers stand next to an express train on the platform of Medina in October 2018.

Passengers stand next to an express train on the platform of Medina in October 2018.

Photo: dpa

The train leaves for Jeddah on time. The port city has always been considered relatively cosmopolitan. Merchants from all over the world did business here, and guest workers who were not familiar with the strict Wahhabi Islam of the state settled. If you would guess someone like Ayman Tamano, musician, record producer, film director and photographer anywhere, it would be in Jeddah. He’s someone who seems to know everyone in his city’s creative scene, who in turn seems to know everyone in that scene. It is one of their conscious minds. He had his studio on one of the upper floors of my office tower for a long time, but now everyone can see what he’s doing there. “Like many, I’m still processing what’s going on here,” Ayman says. There is still a hint of suspicion when he and his friends discuss their newfound openness. And they do it every day.


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