Plan afoot to make Riyadh the Middle East’s ‘mega-metropolis’

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Riyadh Metro. (Shutterstock)
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King Fahd national library in Riyadh. (Shutterstock)
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Al-Bujairi Square in historic Ad Diriyah. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 23 January 2020

Plan afoot to make Riyadh the Middle East’s ‘mega-metropolis’

  • Head of Royal Commission for Riyadh outlines ambitious program in conversation with Arab News
  • Fahd Al-Rasheed says the aim is to make Riyadh a “more sustainable, mobile and livable city”

DAVOS: Saudi Arabia is planning for a dramatic increase in the population of the capital, Riyadh, to make it a “mega-metropolis” in the Middle East, Arab News can reveal.

Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Fahd Al-Rasheed, who last November took up the role of president of the Royal Commission for Riyadh - the city’s ultimate planning and development authority - said that the population could double by 2030, with planned population growth of 8 per cent per year.

“Riyadh is already the biggest urban economy in the region, but with the scale and leverage this plan bring will turn it into a mega-metropolis,” Al-Rasheed said.

“What we’re going to see in Riyadh is an economic revolution the like of which the world has not seen.”

The master plan for the city will also involve a change of lifestyle and image for the Kingdom’s capital. “It is not just about growth, but about the quality of growth,” Al-Rasheed said.

“The aim is to make Riyadh a more sustainable, mobile and livable city, with family facilities, sports, events, health facilities and schools.”

He added that the Royal Commission is planning some 424 initiatives of varying sizes over the next decade, and the aggregate value of projects amounted to $55 billion (SR 206.25 billion).

Al-Rasheed said the projects would be built via public and private sector initiatives, and he would welcome foreign participation in the projects.

There have been several mega-projects under way in the capital for some time, and Al-Rasheed is planning to prioritize completion of some of these in the next 12 months.

He said that the Riyadh Metro and the King Abdullah Financial District projects would be “soft-launched” in time for the G20 meeting of global leaders in November.

“Big parts of KAFD are already occupied, commercial and residential, but these are very complex projects. The Metro involves a space of 4 million square meters, most of that underground,” he said.

We will see an economic revolution in Riyadh the like of which the world has never seen.

Fahd Al-Rasheed, President, Royal Commission for Riyadh

Other big developments to transform the city are the Green Riyadh project, which involves the planting of a tree for each of the current population, which would make the capital “as green as London” and also help reduce temperatures.

Riyadh has grown on average at around 4 per cent per year over the past two decades, and currently has a population of around 7 million.

“We are already adding 300,000 residents per year,” Al-Rasheed said.

“It is a very exciting project because it represents the future of the capital of the Kingdom.”

Under Al-Rasheed as chief executive, the King Abdullah Economic City on the Red Sea coast became one of the most successful developments in the region.

“KAEC has the second largest commercial port in the Kingdom, the most successful non-oil industrial zone in the country, as well as a diverse residential community with world class sports and events,” he said.

The plan to grow the Riyadh is the latest of the mega-projects of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the country away from oil dependency, in the same league as the Red Sea Development, the Neom project in the northwest, and the Qiddiya leisure resort south of the capital.

Last week, Arab News revealed that Khalaf Al-Habtoor, the UAE property and leisure tycoon, was planning a huge development in Riyadh involving parks, hotels, lakes and recreation facilities.

Riyadh, which was made the capital city when the Kingdom was established in 1932, is one of the fastest grown in the Arab world.

Over the past two decades its population has doubled as the Kingdom’s economy boomed on rising oil prices and, more recently, as the hub for the Vision 2030 transformation of the Saudi economy.

The Royal Commission was set up last year to replace the Riyadh Development Authority.

In addition to the Metro and the KAFD, it oversees several other urban initiatives, including the historical Addiriyah development program and the King Abdulaziz Historical Center Project.


Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

Updated 20 February 2020

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

  • Human and artificial intelligence are racing ahead to detect and control outbreaks of infectious disease

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?

In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.

Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments to save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.

What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.

For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It is difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.

The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.

Early warning systems that scansocial media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.

“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”

The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.

Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.

ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first
notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.

Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there is almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.

“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.

Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques are not so novel.

“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”

Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.

Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of the tick-borne Lyme disease.

Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.