How King Salman built a capital for the 21st century
Within the Saudi context, the name Salman bin Abdul Aziz is synonymous with effective governance and administration. Born the 25th son of the modern Kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, the young Prince Salman was schooled in Riyadh with his brothers in the traditional disciplines becoming of an Arabian prince — the Holy Qur’an and history.
King Salman’s career in government is characterized by his two-time governorship of Riyadh, becoming known affectionately as “Prince of the Princes”. King Salman was first appointed governor in 1954 at the age of 19, he was subsequently appointed to the rank of minister and his first tenure came to an end in 1960. King Salman’s appointment to preside over the capital city at such a young age was a testimony to his capabilities and what would become a life-long personal connection to the tribes and peoples that make up the cosmopolitan population of modern-day Riyadh. The successive trust bestowed upon him by five Saudi monarchs is representative of his abilities as an effective governor.
The political figure of King Salman is inextricably linked to his extended stewardship of Riyadh, from a city of 80,000 inhabitants to one of about five million, as its governor from 1963 to 2011. Riyadh today is an example of his personal contribution to the field of public management in Saudi Arabia. The administration of Riyadh grew rapidly to deal with the dual challenges of building both a new home and a modern capital. Situated almost at the heart of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the city is now also a communications hub for air and road links and, in the not-too-distant future, the new high-speed railway network. A small town when King Salman became governor, Riyadh is approaching the population size of New York, London or Hong Kong.
As the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has played a significant role in central government and national development. It is therefore impossible to isolate actions in local governance in Riyadh from the activities of central government. At the center of this idea is the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ). A hugely ambitious project at its outset, it serves to embody the success of the governorship of King Salman. Through effecting centrally administered government development and supplementing it with new apparatus for parallel civilian urban administration, like the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA), King Salman’s role in transforming Riyadh is embodied in the speed and success of building the DQ.
Treating the responsibility bestowed on him by successive kings as a position of trust, King Salman maintained key agency roles to drive development in Riyadh. Alongside his governorship, King Salman’s other positions enabled him to transform policy into effective results. King Salman was chairman of the Arriyadh Development Authority, chairman of the Higher Commissioner of Development of Diriyah and honorary chairman of the Riyadh Development Co. His role in setting up these organizations and using them to supplement the growing demands in the management of the city were an important development in the growth of the maturity of Saudi public organizations.
The development of urban management under the king’s decades-long governorship was the most crucial factor in Riyadh’s transformation from pre-oil to post-oil circumstances.
Zaid M. Belbagi
It is clear that certain factors appear to have played a significant role in shaping the evolving state of urban management in Riyadh. Crucially, these have been the availability of resources, the huge influx of migrants and the subsequent pressures of providing public services. Riyadh has changed beyond recognition, from a basic tribal settlement to a city of many millions, occupying an area of more than 1,800 sq km.
Such a rapid transformation, originally in the absence of institutional structures and the necessary resources for public management, has been challenging. However, the steady hand of King Salman as governor led to consistency in the building of institutions and improvements in the management capacity of the city’s administrative departments.
In this regard, the development of urban management in Riyadh under King Salman was the most crucial factor in the transformation from the pre-oil to post-oil circumstances of the city.
As Riyadh embarks on the most ambitious public transport project in the world, the Riyadh Metro, which will comprise more than 60km of underground rail, 80km of elevated track and 85 stations, the role of King Salman in setting the conditions for such enormous infrastructure development is clear.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view