The rationale for Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh renaissance

The plans hope to make Riyadh the hub for one of the 10 biggest urban economies in the world. (Arab News)
The plans hope to make Riyadh the hub for one of the 10 biggest urban economies in the world. (Arab News)
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Updated 03 March 2021

The rationale for Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh renaissance

The plans hope to make Riyadh the hub for one of the 10 biggest urban economies in the world. (Arab News)
  • Scale of vision for future development of Saudi capital may be mind-boggling but achievable and ultimately beneficial
  • A plan under preparation should provide solutions to the economic, social, demographic and financial challenges involved

DUBAI: The scale of the vision for the future development of Riyadh — unveiled by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at last month’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference — is mind-boggling.

By 2030, the Saudi capital will at least double in size from its current population of around 7.5 million people. It will be the hub for one of the 10 biggest urban economies in the world. Plus, it will be a livable, human-centric city with green spaces, recreational facilities and an urban lifestyle to attract talent from around the world to the biggest city in the Middle East.

“True growth begins in the city, whether in terms of industry, innovation, education, services, or other sectors. I have no doubt that the world economies are not based on nations, but on cities,” the Crown Prince said at the event, organized under the theme “The Neo-Renaissance.”

The plans for a Riyadh renaissance are to be implemented by Fahd Al-Rasheed, the president of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City (RCRC), who is well aware of the challenges presented by the ambitious strategy. “Vision without execution is hallucination,” he said.

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A detailed road map for the transformation of the city is currently being prepared, likely to be unveiled in the second quarter of the year. It will have to add gritty detail and — hopefully — solutions to the economic, social, demographic and financial challenges the plan involves.

But experts in urban development strategy in the Middle East have told Arab News that, far from being an over-ambitious daydream, the strategy is practical, achievable and ultimately beneficial.

Karl Sharro, London-based architect and editor of the forthcoming book “The New Arab City,” said: “Historically, it is totally plausible. Riyadh is so important for the history of the country.”




A Riyadh street in 1937. The city has a long history of rapid growth. (AFP/File)

Todd Reisz, also an architect based in Amsterdam whose new work “Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai,” has just been published, said Riyadh already has “a very substantial capacity to plan a city and organize its components.”

Jeff Merritt, a San Francisco-based expert in smart cities and urban transformation for the World Economic Forum, said: “Such rapid urban expansion is not implausible, but you have to learn from the experience of other world cities.”

The urban experts agreed that, while Riyadh’s plans were ambitious, they were not unprecedented. In fact, the Saudi capital itself has a long history of such rapid growth.

Writing in the journal Scientific Research, architecture expert Saleh Al-Hathloul said: “Riyadh had grown from a small town of less than half a million inhabitants into a large metropolis of 7 million during the past 50 years. The speed and scale of its transformation have had few parallels.”

Between the 1930s and the 1980s, Riyadh roughly doubled in size each decade. As the center of administration for the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it attracted ministerial and other government buildings, as well as a diplomatic quarter and a central business district with all the financial and commercial apparatus of a capital city.




Passengers ready to board a train from Riyadh to Dhahran in 1955. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

In the 1970s, the booming city needed the skills of a master-planner, and the authorities called in Constantinos Doxiadis, an architect and urban planner who had worked on many projects in his native Greece, as well as in the Middle East and Pakistan, where he designed the new capital, Islamabad.

With Riyadh in the midst of oil-fueled economic and demographic growth, Doxiadis experimented with the idea of a US-style grid system, still in evidence in the Al-Olaya district of the city today.

By the 1990s, Riyadh’s development was taken over by the Ar Riyadh Development Authority (now a unit of the RCRC), which launched MEDSTAR — the Metropolitan Development Strategy for Ar Riyadh — seeking to bring structure to the city’s rapid expansion.

It aimed to create urban subcenters (one of which is the basis for the King Abdullah Financial District), new suburban developments, and the public transportation system being built around the Metro.

“Saudi Arabia and Riyadh have a history of urban planning,” Reisz said, pointing also to the development work at Jubail and Yanbu and newer economic and industrial hubs as examples of this tradition.




Construction underway in the capital in 1980. (François LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia also has the lessons of other cities around the world that have experienced such phenomenal expansion. In the Middle East, there is the model of Dubai, which achieved the Riyadh goal of doubling population in a decade more than once in its 50-year history as part of the UAE.

Reisz highlights the central role of architecture in Dubai growth: “Modern architecture made Dubai in the physical sense, but it also delivered an image easily conveyed and broadcast,” he wrote.

From further afield, the example of the dramatic demographic growth in China will also be in the Riyadh planners’ case-study folder. Several Chinese cities have grown from provincial towns to become megacities in the past few decades, matching the country’s rise as an economic superpower.

Chongqing, in the center of China, has become an urban giant of more than 30 million people in the space of a few decades, remarkable even for a country where 10-million-plus cities seem to spring up almost overnight.

“For Saudi Arabia, China is a nice parallel, because urban growth there has been driven by centralized government policy,” said Sharro.




An image of Riyadh from last year. By 2030, the city will at least double in size from its current population of around 7.5 million. (Reuters/File)

Merritt, however, urged some caution in applying the China model to Saudi Arabia. “In China, the growth was driven by the migration of a large rural population into cities. Saudi Arabia does not have such a large rural pool,” he said.

As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman highlighted at the FII conference, the driving force for the Riyadh expansion will be economic. Riyadh represents about 50 per cent of the non-oil economy in Saudi Arabia, and enjoys cost advantages over other urban centers.

The cost of creating jobs in the city are 30 percent less than other cities of Saudi Arabia. Reisz endorsed that rationale. “Cities are tools to reach economic goals. Cities build economies. Their development requires integration between economics, finance and urbanism,” he said.

The Riyadh plan relies heavily on the city’s ability to draw business in to take advantage of the size and growth of the Kingdom’s economy. The RCRC and the Saudi investment ministry have collaborated on a program to persuade big multinational companies to set up their regional headquarters in the city, and were able to unveil 25 such new corporate entrants last month.

Attracting more new HQs in the city will depend to a large degree on the incentives currently being finalized as part of a wide-ranging reform of corporate and financial law to further improve the Kingdom’s standing in the global competitiveness league tables.




Fahd Al-Rasheed, the president of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City. (SPA)

Private investment in the Riyadh project is a key factor. Al-Rasheed said that most of the first-stage capital would come from government investment, though it is clear that later multi-billion-dollar stages would expect a bigger contribution from private sources keen to get on the ground-floor level of the development.

The great cities of the world are human environments as well as economic centers, and the “neo-renaissance” strategy lays great emphasis on the “livability” factor.  The Crown Prince painted a picture of a green city with big public open spaces, where millions of trees would be planted to protect the environment and make urban life in a desert environment more comfortable.

The greening of Riyadh will also be accompanied by a boom in entertainment, cultural and leisure activities as part of the liberalization of the Kingdom’s social environment under the Vision 2030 strategy.




A detailed road map for the transformation of Riyadh is currently being prepared. (Shutterstock)

“For example, as more women feel free to go out alone or with their friends, that will change the social fabric of the city,” Sharro said, highlighting a factor that is likely to be reflected in the new urban design and architecture of the growing city.

“Riyadh now is a car-dominated city, but will they take the opportunity to move to a more European style, to densify? There is potential to grow population numbers without expanding outwards in an urban sprawl by having more apartment buildings and more social facilities available locally,” he added.

Merritt pointed to the ambition of Paris to become a “15-minute city” where most social, cultural and commercial amenities are reachable on foot, a concept that also has an echo in The Line, the central urban strip of the NEOM development. “You don’t want a city devoid of humanity dominated by cookie-cutter buildings,” he said.

The planners at the RCRC have other priorities too as they prepare to unveil detailed plans for the renaissance of the city: The provision of utilities and energy in a sustainable way, the expansion of Riyadh’s digital capability and, by no means the least, the formal opening and ultimate expansion of the metro system.

Much will depend too on the ability to generate jobs in the city to meet the aspirations of the growing, and increasingly youthful, population.

But the urban experts seem genuinely excited by the prospects for the Riyadh renaissance, as Sharro, the London-based architect, explained. “I would have to have a crystal ball to see how it will all work out, but if I was a young Saudi man or woman, I’d be delighted to be part of it,” he said.

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• Twitter: @frankkanedubai

Note: An earlier version of the story had wrongly attributed the last quote to Todd Reisz instead of Karl Sharro.


Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin

Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin
Updated 58 min 44 sec ago

Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin

Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin
  • Turkish-German scientist and entrepreneur envisions use of techniques developed for COVID-19 fight in successful cancer treatment
  • Sahin says a new vaccine version would be more easily transportable and more effective against new COVID-19 variants

DUBAI: The man who invented the first vaccine against the deadly coronavirus is prioritizing a cure for cancer as his post-pandemic target.

Ugur Sahin, the co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech, the firm which developed the earliest authorized vaccine in partnership with Pfizer, told Arab News that successful cancer treatment, using similar techniques he developed in the fight against COVID-19, was his next goal.

Sahin, who developed the vaccine along with his wife Ozlem Tureci, who is BioNTech’s chief medical officer, was appearing in the latest episode of Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with leading global policy-makers and business people.

“Definitely. The success now with our COVID-19 vaccine is of course transformative for the company, and we see that as a great opportunity,” he said

 

Sahin also spoke of the “next generation” of COVID vaccine his company is developing, the need for a fairer system of global distribution of the existing vaccine, and the possibility that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be manufactured in the Middle East.

BioNTech began life as a company focused on using revolutionary mRNA technology to develop new medical weapons in the fight against cancer, and Sahin said that was his next goal once the pandemic had been defeated. The success of the COVID-19 vaccine has proved a vindication of his methods, and given BioNTech the financial resources to pursue the cancer treatment.

“We see that as a great opportunity, and also an obligation to think in an even bigger fashion about our vision, and how we could accelerate our cancer program and make it more available,” he said.

Sahin, who is the son of Turkish immigrants to Germany, where BioNTech is based, revealed that a new version of the COVID-19 vaccine could be ready soon, one that is more easily transportable and which could deal more effectively with the more deadly variants of the disease that are appearing in different parts of the world.

“We started to manufacture our vaccine and it came at the beginning with a challenge. We have a vaccine which has to be kept at minus 70 degrees. It’s not yet suitable for supply to all regions on the planet,” he said.

“But we are working on better conditions. We have, most recently, published that we can also start at minus 20 and we will continue to work on that and our aim is really to make our vaccine available — 2 billion doses and maybe even more in 2021 — including not only developed countries but also developing countries.” 

 

The “next generation” of the vaccine could be stored and transported at temperatures as high as minus 2 to minus 8 degrees, he said.

Sahin said that the existing vaccine was also expected to be effective against the South African variant of the virus, which is more transmissible and leads to higher fatality rates, but he added that there was still more testing to be done and data analyzed on the new variants.

Distributing the vaccine more fairly is a challenge, he admitted. “Fairness is always a question of logistics and also accessibility. Our goal when we started to develop this vaccine — and this is in the center of our hearts — is to make our vaccine available worldwide to everyone who needs it,” he said.

He also believes that a more innovative and entrepreneurial approach is needed to solve the problems of distribution of the vaccine to poorer parts of the world.

“We should really ask the question: How can we work together to make that possible?” Sahin said. “That's for some of the future goals, to really understand what are the limitations. For example, for the vaccine supply now, I really want to understand what is the limitation to make our vaccine available to people everywhere,” he said.

One of the key questions in the minds of economic and medical policymakers is when the increasing level of vaccination will begin to bring economic life back to normal after the damaging lockdowns of the past year. “it indeed depends on the rollout. We have this magic number of about 60 to 70 percent of people being vaccinated to start to see a herd immunity, but we are already starting to see the first effects of the vaccinations, with countries starting to vaccinate elderly people.

 

“So the first effect is that the hospitalizations are dropping in the vaccinated people and that's the first very important aspect — to get the reduction of hospitalization and mortality, and later on get also a better control of infections,” Sahin said.

On the problem of persuading people reluctant to have the vaccine, he said: “We have to continue to communicate the benefits we are seeing. This could help convince people.”

BioNTech partnered with US pharmaceuticals group Pfizer when the potential of its vaccine was in the early stages, optimizing the Americans’ global network for clinical trials, supply and regulatory know-how.

“So, we combined our skills and we are working together, driven by science. At the end of the day, we all want to accomplish the same: We want to develop the vaccine as soon as possible, we want to produce as much as possible, and of course we want to have a safe and effective vaccine,” he said.

Outside the US, the vaccine is manufactured at BioNTech facilities in Europe and transported internationally. A new facility in the German town of Marburg is being prepared to manufacture the vaccine in greater numbers, but Sahin explained the long and complex work required in setting up facilities overseas.

 

“It will take us about eight months until we will get out the first vaccines from Marburg. So, this is really the minimal time that would be required. It does not help in the early phase of the pandemic to set up new factories somewhere else. Every factory that we are now starting to consider will help us only in mid-2022,” he said.

The vaccine has been authorized and delivered early in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, and two countries in the region — Israel and the UAE — top the world tables for the highest proportion of their populations already vaccinated.

Sahin said that the region could be the location of future manufacturing facilities, for the COVID-19 vaccine or for other, potentially more devastating viruses.

“What this pandemic taught us is very clear. It was somehow expected by experts, since more than 20 years, that this could happen. It happened and we were not well prepared, the world was not well prepared. This is a bad pandemic, but it's not the worst possible pandemic,” he said.

 

Sahin declined to comment on the qualities of rival vaccines available. “This is not a race. If it is a race, it’s against the virus, and I'm really happy about that,” he said.

“I had predicted that we will need multiple vaccine developers to participate and to ensure that everyone on the planet is able to get a vaccine, and this is happening.

“It is wonderful to see that all kinds of international collaborations have come up not only with one vaccine, but there are multiple vaccines.”

Sahin and Ozlem, who were named “People of the Year 2020” for their breakthrough in developing the first authorized vaccine, also joined the ranks of the world’s billionaires as the value of the company soared on news of the vaccine.

The founders of BioNTech have strong views on the value of philanthropy in the fight against life-threatening diseases, as rich and successful entrepreneurs increasingly donate a large proportion of their wealth to medical research.

“It is extremely important. We have to understand everyone can do something, and the way we would like to position our company is to become a useful company with a philanthropic vision. At the end of the day the question is: How can we ensure that the things we do are done for the benefit of humanity,” Sahin said.

“I don't see a clear reason why, for example, people living in Africa should not benefit from modern cancer treatments.”

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Twitter: @frankkanedubai

 

 

 

 

 


BNP Paribas appoints female Saudi country chief

BNP Paribas appoints female Saudi country chief
Updated 07 March 2021

BNP Paribas appoints female Saudi country chief

BNP Paribas appoints female Saudi country chief
  • Al-Asmari will oversee the bank’s national commercial strategy
  • She will also be responsible for expanding the bank’s product and service work in all CIB segments, including sustainable finance

JEDDAH: BNP Paribas has appointed Reema Al-Asmari as head of territory for Saudi Arabia, bolstering the French bank’s corporate and investment banking (CIB) presence in the Kingdom.
She will oversee the bank’s national commercial strategy, with a focus on strengthening relationships with strategic clients, multinational corporations and government-related entities.
She will also be responsible for expanding the bank’s product and service work in all CIB segments, including sustainable finance.
Amine Bel Hadj Soulami — head of BNP Paribas Middle East and Africa (MEA), and a member of the BNP Paribas MEA Executive Committee — said: “We are pleased to have Reema on board, strengthening our team with her in-depth knowledge of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Soulami added: “BNP Paribas has long recognized the Kingdom’s vital role in the overall development of the region, since the bank became operational there in 2005.”
Al-Asmari joins BNP Paribas from Natixis, where she was CEO for Saudi Arabia. She previously worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in the Kingdom for nine years, where she worked as treasury services country head.
Her appointment comes as a report by ratings agency Moody’s found that rising female participation in the labor force has the potential to boost Saudi Arabia’s non-oil growth and improve average household incomes.
The Kingdom published its latest labor market survey in February and showed that Saudi women’s workforce participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020, up from 26 percent at the end of 2019. The figure is almost double what it was in 2016.
Under the Vision 2030 reform plan, Saudi Arabia aims for female participation in the labor force to be at 30 percent by 2030, a target it has now achieved ahead of schedule.
The elimination of the decades-old ban on women driving was the first big step. The government also created a subsidy program to help women with work-related commuting and childcare expenses.


Saudi central bank extends deferred payment, guaranteed financing programs

Saudi central bank extends deferred payment, guaranteed financing programs
Updated 07 March 2021

Saudi central bank extends deferred payment, guaranteed financing programs

Saudi central bank extends deferred payment, guaranteed financing programs
  • Three month extension for deferred payment program
  • Part of package to support private sector

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s central bank (SAMA) said on Sunday that it had extended a deferred payment program to support private sector financing for an additional three months until June 30 as part of measures to stem the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy.
SAMA said that the decision aims “to empower the financial sector to play its role in supporting the micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) sector, and contribute to supporting economic growth and preserving employment in the private sector.”
A statement published on the central bank website also said a guaranteed financing program had been extended for an additional year until March 14, 2022 to support small and medium enterprises.
SAMA said the extensions are also aimed at enhancing the central bank’s contribution in supporting MSMEs, and enabling them to overcome the challenges that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic and the precautionary measures adopted to confront them.
The decision is in line with the central bank’s role in “maintaining monetary stability, supporting the stability of the financial sector, enhancing confidence, supporting economic growth, and mitigating the financial and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic on various economic activities.”
SAMA said around 99,000 contracts have benefited from the deferred payment program since March 14, 2020, amounting to SR124 billion ($33.04 billion).
It also said that over 5,000 contracts benefited from the guaranteed financing program, valuing over SR8 billion.

(With Reuters)


Saudi Arabia’s rising female labor force defies global pandemic trend

Saudi Arabia’s rising female labor force defies global pandemic trend
Updated 07 March 2021

Saudi Arabia’s rising female labor force defies global pandemic trend

Saudi Arabia’s rising female labor force defies global pandemic trend
  • The Kingdom’s latest labor market survey in February showed that women’s participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020
  • The figure is almost double what it was in 2016

JEDDAH: Rising female participation in Saudi Arabia’s labor force could boost non-oil growth and improve average household incomes in the country, according to a report by Moody’s rating agency.
The Kingdom’s latest labor market survey in February showed that women’s participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020, up from 26 percent at the end of 2019. While the number is still one of the lowest in the world, the Kingdom is making progress as the figure is almost double what it was in 2016.
Last year’s increase came as a surprise given the pandemic, which has resulted in a decrease in female labor force participation in most parts of the world, with large numbers of women facing increased childcare responsibilities as a result of lockdowns and school closures.
This shows that the increase in female labor force participation in Saudi Arabia is likely to continue, the Moody’s report said.
Under the Vision 2030 goals, Saudi Arabia aims for female participation in the labor force to be at 30 percent by 2030, a target it has achieved ahead of schedule.
The elimination of the decades-old ban on women driving was the first big step, but the government also created a subsidy program to help women with work-related commuting and childcare expenses.
At the same time, global consultancy firm KPMG’s Female Leaders Outlook 2020 was published for the first time in the Kingdom. The survey, conducted in 2020, includes 675 female leaders from 52 countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Kholoud Mousa, partner and head of inclusion and diversity at KPMG in the Kingdom, said: “COVID-19 is an accelerator for digitalization and has ignited change in many areas, so it could be seen as a catalyst for gender diversity, especially in the mid to long term,” she added.
Forty-seven percent of Saudi female leaders in the survey said they do not expect the pandemic to slow progress on diversity and inclusion, and 23 percent of Saudi female leaders said introducing workplace quotas for women was a positive move — more than double the global average.
Looking to the future, 66 percent of female leaders in Saudi Arabia said they were confident about their company’s growth prospects over the next three years.


Eastern Province Cement shrugs off pandemic with bumper dividend payout

Eastern Province Cement shrugs off pandemic with bumper dividend payout
Updated 07 March 2021

Eastern Province Cement shrugs off pandemic with bumper dividend payout

Eastern Province Cement shrugs off pandemic with bumper dividend payout
  • Cement sector benefits from mega projects
  • Shares rise as company agrees dividend

DUBAI: Eastern Province Cement shareholders are set to receive an SR215 million ($57.2 million) dividend payout after full-year profits jumped by a fifth last year.
Sales edged 1.8 percent higher in 2020 to SR742 million compared to a year earlier, the Dammam-based company said in a Tadawul stock exchange filing on Sunday. Net profit rose 19.9 percent to SR217 million.
It said that higher sales and lower expenses helped to drive earnings higher.
Cement producers across the Kingdom are benefiting from rising demand from the construction sector where a number of mega-projects linked to the emerging tourism sector have started to take shape.
The shares rose 1.24 percent on Sunday.