Jordan Plans Green Star Trek Theme Park

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has big plans to renovate the port of Aqaba, and among them is the building of a $1.5 billion Star Trek theme park powered by green energy.

King Abdullah of Jordan is a huge Star Trek fan, and appeared in a cameo in Star Trek: Voyager:

The mixture of futurism, utopianism, environmentalism, American pop culture, and Middle Eastern politics in this news item is too powerful for an old Trekkie like yours truly to pass up.

American television serials have been an important part of t.v. history in the Middle East, as they have been in much of the world. In the Arab world typically they have been broadcast with subtitles (back in the 1970s I learned some Arabic in my leisure time that way, in Cairo, Beirut and Amman). In contrast, in Iran they were dubbed into Persian, and I watched a Star Trek episode in that language in Tehran in 1976, before the ayatollahs banned Americana as a tool of the devil.

Back in the days when there were few channels in the Arab world, before satellite t.v., sometimes a whole season of American soap operas like Falcon Crest (I know) were broadcast as a bloc, one every weekday night until the season was finished, and you could hear a pin drop in Cairo during that hour. Now, there are satellite channels that specialize in delivering American serials.

I can’t say that I am aware that Star Trek has been particularly popular in the Arab world. The Star Trek wikipedia entry is a stub. Among the few Arabic web page entries I could find for the serial was a 2009 announcement that MBC-2, a Saudi-owned entertainment satellite channel, was offering a free Star Trek t-shirt or mousepad if you could answer the trivia questions at its Star Trek web page. Leonard Nimoy (who played Spock) recently endorsed a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, which caused a flurry of reporting on Star Trek in Arabic. Of course, reception studies for American television serials among Arab publics are virtually non-existent, so it is hard to gauge the impact of or interest in the series.

As an afficionado of science fiction, I read fanzines like Locus, and have noted that the reports on fandom throughout the world are extremely uneven. That is, science fiction seems to be popular in Romania, but not in Zambia. Now, you might think that it depends on how urbanized a society is, or how many engineers and other technically trained people it has. But I don’t think that is the explanation.

I have a different hypothesis about the relative popularity in various regions of the world of science fiction. It is influenced a bit by Frederic Jameson’s thesis that literature in the developing world is often a national allegory. I think science fiction is popular where scientific and technological innovation is explicitly part of the national project. Thus, it was produced everywhere in the old Soviet Union, even in largely rural areas like Tajikistan, because scientific modernity and invention was key to what it was to be a Soviet citizen. It is popular in Communist China for the same reason, even though that country still has a lot of rural villages. Also in Brazil. Of course, it is big in Germany, France and the UK, and Western Europe generally.

Given that “Arab researchers and scientists account for only 1.1 percent of global scientific publishing, and spending on scientific research lies below 0.3% of GDP in the majority of Arab countries,” it is no surprise that science fiction just is not a big genre in contemporary Arabic literature. That is, it is not a genre on which the national allegory can easily be inscribed.

The lack of scientific and technological productivity in the region is owing to the same forces that created economic and infrastructural stagnation (the Oil Gulf is excepted)– major resources were simply stolen by the ruling elites and dedicated to their villas and foreign investments rather than being invested in the universities and research institutions. This major failure to boost research is one of the reasons that they lost militarily and geostrategically to their rival, Israel. The bad governance also has an impact on public attitudes. For most Arabs, science and technology is something that is constantly coming from the outside, almost never something invented locally. It is not participatory, not part of their national project. Rapid technological change, especially if it affects employment or the relative power of groups and states, may even fuel resentment against the outside world. The turn to religion, a putting of faith in forces outside ordinary reality, makes sense in a context in which there is little human scientific and technological agency. (Arabs know very well how to use technology once they acquire it, they are just not the heroes of its story.)

So King Abdallah’s love of Star Trek is a little idiosyncratic. And the theme park is after all intended for foreign tourists.

But the use of alternative energy for the park is the one bit of it that has a local context. Research and development in green energy is expensive, and deploying the solar panels and wind turbines is a substantial investment that will pay off only over time. That is why investors in this sector are typically well-heeled venture capitalist with deep pockets, or are governments. One of the ironies of the current energy scene is the United Arab Emirates’ project called, Masdar, a green-energy town of 30,000. There was at one point a plan to build a bigger version of Masdar in Jordan itself. Alternative energy faces obstacles in the region because behind the scenes, the Saudis, who give out a lot of foreign aid, lobby against wind and solar (they are afraid their oil will fall in value). But this attitude of theirs may be changing, and the Revolutions of 2011 have anyway reduced their clout in this regard. I don’t know how anyone would have known about it in the English-speaking world, but the first Egyptian solar power plant, funded in part by the European Union, opened this month in Bani Suef.

So renewable energy, for the non-oil Middle East states, is one potential area of innovation where at least a few local leaders and environmental groups are taking some initiative. It is no accident that it is this technology that is being associated in Jordan with the Star Trek theme park. That is, the Arab world may be groping toward a new national allegory, in which solar energy will be central.

In the meantime, King Abdallah needs to move his country more rapidly toward being a parliamentary democracy with full legal rights and liberties for all citizens, of the sort characteristic of the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek universe. The age of the Klingons and Romulans in the region is passing.

Posted in Energy | 18 Responses | Print |

18 Responses

  1. King Abdallah needs to move his country more rapidly toward being a parliamentary democracy with full legal rights and liberties for all citizens, of the sort characteristic of the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek universe.

    I think you are mistaken in your characterisation of Star Trek.

    What was routinely portrayed on TV was much more akin to a fascist society. Election of authority was never depicted.

    All authority exercised was always by military commanders. Very occassionaly people with civilian sounding titles (President, Governor) were present but always were instructed by Star Fleet authority. Civilian authority was generally portrayed as subservient to military command.

    Without money people still had access to enormous resources but only at the behest of meaning Star Fleet controlling the resources.

    You may remember the continual storylines of researchers seeking Star Flett aid and permission to go about their business. On what basis do you imagine people were given resources to expend?

    Gene Roddenberry famously said that Star Trek was obviously not about a future society, not an attempt to predict the 23rd Centruy but about current society. It was storiers about the 20th Century in an environment that offered opportunities for reflection.

    I think the increasing presence and authority of the military over the decades of it’s production reflected U.S society qwuite accurately.

    • Would a military man have come up with the Prime Directive?

      The fact that Kirk was always butting heads with the Prime Directive indicates that he still ultimately accepted civilian primacy in what essentially is an issue of sovereignity.

      Which is why it’s not surprising that the more PC-liberal New Generation series really enshrined the Prime Directive. Roddenberry was perhaps a generic Greatest Generation/Cold War liberal, but somehow his writing staff’s little contrivance to make things harder for the heroes has come to appear prophetic. We DON’T know for sure what is best for alien societies.

    • Fascist societies created strong racial hierarchies, regimented citizens, were ruled by capricious strongmen, and were militaristic and expansionist. The Federation was nothing like that.

  2. For some people, Star Trek was a way to escape. For others, it was a way to stay close to the present and to examine issues to hot to touch otherwise. Which do you suppose King Abdullah wants to do?

    • Yeah, you do understand that the investment is intended to bring in tourist dollars. Tourism is a big industry in that part of the world, often 5-10% of the GDP. It isn’t a boondoggle.

      Now Gaddafi’s arms purchases, those were a boondoggle.

      • Roddenberry considered Star Trek as educational entertainment, not a commercial or political propaganda project. $1.5 bln is much more than was ever spent on making the show. He expressed his views in writing and directing SciFi, not in explicit political rants.

        Basically, Trek is a set of TV novels, so the best way to appreciate it is to watch and discuss TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, not to build commercial theme parks. Why build a huge billion dollar Mark Twain park?

        Direct systematic intervention in alien affairs clearly contradicts the Trek worldview. One can’t imagine Federation of Planets declaring certain alien regime illegitimate and bombing it. This is not Trek!

        In the US, the idea of using taxpayers’ money to build such a park or museum would cause a huge outrage. No, I don’t think private investors would ever bring in a billion plus for this purpose. When, all of a sudden, such things happen in the Arab world, it smells heavy corruption.

  3. I really enjoyed this story. So King Abdullah is a trekkie! It is also very interesting to see what Arab states are doing with green energy. More “power” to them! Thanks for this interesting piece.

  4. Agree with Juan’s assessment of lack of interest in SF in the M.E. I attribute that to mainly a bloated ethos that looks at itself as the prime example of all there should be on earth and certainly the universe. Such an ethos can’t imagine something so alien as Star Trek. It can’t imagine, understand or accept an ethos that is so alien to the local one.

    I say it is some sort of social or cultural autism that has difficulty imagining other legitimate social systems in existence, and much less if it is so radically different.

  5. I was a 14-year old desperately trying to date the daughter of a supposed Star Trek writer, sixty miles away on the other side of LA, I had met her thru church groups. But his name wasn’t in the credits of the first episode, and I never could get together with her. I watched most of the first five episodes, and could see the appeal of the actors/characters, but never got into it, even as I continued to read sci-fi novels and really got into them later.

    The point here is that the topic of cultural fragmentation (through new cultural phenomena such as transnational cult TV shows) and cultural unification (much hoped for yet seldom experienced) is one of the historical topics discussed most thoroughly by yours truly, most extensively in my 1980 book. (Search my screen-name for more information.)

    As I predicted there, cultural fragmentation has remained a burning-hot trend in recent years, every new fragment that emerges has new separations and particularities attached. The Trekkie + Green Energy theme of this effort is a cute gesture towards linking (an explicitly forward-looking cultural segment) with a conscious effort to change economic culture (because of a forward-looking concern with needed change). A gesture towards cultural unification in the midst of near-universal fragmentation.

  6. Juan’s number of interests and industriousness has always made it obvious that he has no need for sleep; his interest in science-fiction finally suggests the explanation: Juan Cole is visiting us from another dimension.

  7. I had no idea that you were a scifi enthusiast. Now that I know, may I ask for a post on Dune? Since the scope of IC is “middle east, history and religion” it would be great to read your thoughts on the Dune saga, which has elements of the first and the third!

  8. Excellent! Voyager’s my favorite. I’ll have to save my meagre pennies.

  9. I love Star Trek. The literature as national allegory theory is the most plausible explanation of the dearth of Arabic science fiction that I have ever heard.

    As a huge sci-fi fan, I was always disappointed that I could never find translations of Arabic, Urdu, or Persian sci-fi. This is especially sad because, according to wikipedia, the first known science fiction novel was written in Arabic. link to en.wikipedia.org.

  10. “I think science fiction is popular where scientific and technological innovation is explicitly part of the national project.”

    That’s an interesting idea. My take has been that SF is partly a colonial literature–you’ve probably noticed that the literature is filled with thousands of colonies dealing with natives that resemble Africans, et al–and that colonizers like SF and the previously colonized don’t.

    So SF is big in Russia and China, but not in India or SE Asia, for example.

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