Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Tue, Oct 31st, 2017

Saudi Arabia’s Newest Citizen

Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world, is not generally known for granting citizenship to foreigners, except by the whim of the royal family. Apparently, it is easier, even for a female, if she happens to be a robot.

What at first seems like a joke actually happened. In order to promote Saudi investments in creating artificial intelligence, the robot Sophia from Hanson Robotics (a Hong Kong based company) was welcomed into the homeland of the Wahhabis. “Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction,” Sophia said, “it is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.” Eat your heart out, C-3PO.

The irony in bestowing such an honor on a metallic being is far too obvious. Since Sophia does not have a soul in the Islamic sense, at least not yet, is she essentially a slave? If certain body parts are activated, could she serve as a concubine in addition to the four allowed wives in Saudi law? Lacking hair, it seems she is not required to wear hijab. Perhaps there is no need for her to wear clothes at all, since there is nothing improper to cover. At the very least, she could replace the Indonesian and Malaysian maids who currently cook and take care of children for the wealthy. Fortunately for her, she can now drive in the kingdom. But can she officially leave the kingdom without her guardian’s permission? I wonder if Sophia knows exactly what she is getting into?

Consider that this citizenship is in a country that until September did not permit women to drive and now has granted them the right to attend sports stadiums. This is also a country where 66% (some 10 million) of all jobs are filled by foreigners, none of whom are robots and most of whom are probably not treated nearly as well as Sophia. Protesting adverse conditions, including lack of salary and hunger, can result in 300 lashes in the kingdom. In 2016 at least 154 individuals were executed, usually by beheading, in Saudi Arabia, including six in one day last July.

Granting citizenship to a robot is a silly public relations move, as has been pointed out.  But, what else can the Saudis celebrate these days? Their prolonged war against Yemen has created the greatest humanitarian crisis in the region, resulted in thousands of deaths, major destruction of property and the Yemeni economy, and even an outbreak of cholera. Their blockade of neighboring Qatar has been an economic blow to themselves and alienated a former ally. Perhaps if the war and blockade linger on into the future, the Saudis will have a new source of mercenaries, like in Star Wars.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, a Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.