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.


Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO

Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO
Updated 14 sec ago

Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO

Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO

Investors in the digital health industry will see a return of up to 35 percent every year for the next decade, according to the head of a global technology firm.

Peter Ohnemus, president and CEO of Zurich-based dacadoo, talked up the rise of the sector during a discussion on investing in medical innovations at the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyad.

He said that the global value of the digitial health industry for 2021 has been estimated at $26billion, but it is forecast to grow to $238.9 billion industry within seven years.

He said: “From an investment perspective going forward over the next ten years will provide a very high return. 

“The integrated digital health sector will create a 30-35 percent return every year over the next decade.”

Ohnemus said that healthcare providers needed to make it simpler for people to understand what they needed to do to stave off chronic illnesses, and the cost implications of developing such conditions. 

Another CEO, Ali Parsa from London-based Babylon Health, also flagged up the costs involved in what he dubbed the “sick caring industry”, saying: “70 percent of all expenditure goes to predictable preventable diseases.”


SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021

 SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021
Updated 1 min 13 sec ago

SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021

 SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021
  • The chairman reiterated the bank’s efforts to support Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan

The Saudi British Bank (SABB) recorded a seismic leap of 157 percent in net profit after Zakat and income tax of SR2.8 billion ($750m) for the first 9 months of 2021, compared to the loss of SR4.8 billion in the same period last year. 

“It is worth reiterating that we are in the investment phase of our newly announced five-year strategic plan, where we will be taking the necessary steps to develop the Bank into an institution fit to meet the future needs of our customers,” chairman of SABB, Lubna Olayan, said.

“We are investing considerably across the business front-to-back, to ensure that we remain relevant and can create a sustainable banking organization,” she added.  

The chairman reiterated the bank’s efforts to support Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan and unlock the opportunities brought by the economic transformation plans. 


Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction

Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction
Getty Images
Updated 17 min ago

Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction

Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction

RIYADH: Qatar Energy is looking to raise between $5 to $10 billion from issuing green bonds, banking sources told CNBC Arabia.

Qatar Energy is developing an environmental framework in collaboration with global investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, to move into the green bond market in conjunction with the global trend towards reducing carbon emissions, sources said.

The offering is expected to take place in the first quarter of 2022 or by the end of June 2022, sources added.

Separately, Reuters reported that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change in Qatar launched a national climate change action plan aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030.

The plan also envisioned reducing "carbon intensity" of its liquefied natural gas facilities by 25 percent by the same year.

Qatar's move follows other Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia which announced its net-zero emission target by 2060 ahead of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow next week.


Qatar is the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas and aims to expand LNG production to 127 million tonnes annually by 2027. It says its gas production helps combat climate change globally because it can help the world shift from high-polluting fuels like oil and coal to renewable energies.


Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims

Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims
Updated 28 October 2021

Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims

Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims

A million cruise ship passengers will visit Saudi Arabia by 2028 according to ambitious plans set out by the managing director of the country’s Cruise Saudi company.

Fawaz Farooqui set out the goal during a session at the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyad, as he also claimed 50,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created by the industry by 2035.

He also pledged that five cruise ports will operate in Saudi Arabia by 2025.

Farooqui added that plans for Cruise Saudi had been hampered by the pandemic, and said: “Our plan was to bring the first cruise passenger in 2023, but the pandemic hit and many unfortunate incidents happened to the industry.”

Farooqui’s comments came just days after Cruise Saudi became a member of the World Travel & Tourism Council as the Kingdom continues its drive to diversify its economy away from oil as per the Vision 2030 agenda.


‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice

‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice
Updated 28 October 2021

‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice

‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice

Humanity needs rules for dealing with artificial intelligence (AI) in the same way it learned to manage fire and nuclear technology, one of the sector’s up and coming voices has claimed.

Bruno Maisonnier, founder and CEO of AI firm AnotherBrain, admitted there was a danger with the new technology, but that is no different from every major discovery since the dawn of man.

Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyad, Maisonnier said: “There’s risk with AI as well as there are risk with every new technology, that’s part of human history 

“We brought fire and people died from fire, we brought nuclear and people died from that . 

“Each time we have the same reaction: First we fear and then we start to put the feedback and learn and put rules to get the positive out of this technology

“The same goes with AI. The question is when do we have to set these rules?

“Rules must be put but first we must allow the evolution to happen.”

Also speaking at the forum, Pascal Weinberger, CEO and co-founder of tech firm Bardeen AI, insisted that machines will never be able to fully replace humans in many environments.

“There are a lot of things that machines are better at than humans, and vice versa — especially at common sense,” he said.