Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh honors the past as it reimagines the future

The story of Riyadh is one of evolution, with each new chapter reflecting a shift in the wider culture and fortunes of Saudi Arabia. (AFP/Green Riyadh)
The story of Riyadh is one of evolution, with each new chapter reflecting a shift in the wider culture and fortunes of Saudi Arabia. (AFP/Green Riyadh)
Short Url
Updated 19 October 2021

Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh honors the past as it reimagines the future

The story of Riyadh is one of evolution, with each new chapter reflecting a shift in the wider culture and fortunes of Saudi Arabia. (AFP/Green Riyadh)
  • Riyadh’s urban evolution has long reflected wider shifts in Saudi Arabia’s culture, fortunes and ambitions  
  • There is a growing appreciation of Riyadh’s cultural heritage even as it emerges as a high-tech global city

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s role in the global push for a more sustainable future is perhaps most vividly illustrated by “Green Riyadh” — a focal point of the Saudi Green Initiative. From having one of the lowest proportions of green space per capita of any major city, the capital will soon emerge as a lush urban habitat.

Official statements have said the greening of Riyadh “will significantly improve the lives of its citizens, transform the city into an attractive destination and make it one of the world’s most livable cities.”

This is not the first time Riyadh has undergone a metamorphosis, and it is unlikely to be the last. The story of Riyadh is one of evolution, with each new chapter reflecting a shift in the wider culture and fortunes of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh, which translates as “the gardens,” was an unlikely name for this mostly dun-colored city situated in the middle of the bone-dry Nafud desert. The description goes back to the 14th century, when the city (then called Hajr) was depicted by famed Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta as “a city of canals and trees.” No trace remains of that legendary “Venice of the desert.”




Picture dated 1937 shows the historic wall of Riyadh city, which was declared by King Abdel Aziz bin Saud (1932-53) as the capital of Saudi Arabia in the early 1930s. (AFP/File Photo)

The Riyadh we know today emerged in the mid-18th century, when the local ruler Deham Ibn Dawwas built a wall around the dense, one-square-kilometer conurbation of mud-and-wattle houses and narrow alleyways. This traditional, vernacular avatar of Riyadh was still largely intact when King Abdul Aziz founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Until the 1950s, Makkah was the focal point of Saudi Arabia and the seat of its government. Envisioning Riyadh as the capital of a more modern and integrated country, King Saud made the bold decision to relocate his entire government. The new neighborhood of Malaz was purpose-built to contain all state ministries in addition to modern housing, commercial and educational facilities.

The burgeoning oil sector of the 1960s and 1970s was the catalyst for another re-imagining of Riyadh as a car-based city.

King Faisal invited the Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis to oversee the design of a “supergrid,” whereby Riyadh was neatly intersected by throughways along the lines of Dallas or Phoenix in the US. 




As a key element of Vision 2030, the government is investing no less than SR 80 billion in Green Riyadh to improve its environment. (Supplied/Green Riyadh)

The Doxiadis masterplan stated that the new urban pattern “should be adapted to dynamic growth, with a central spine allowing the city to grow (in line with) its population.”

A modern city took a while to materialize, however, and the gigantic empty lots created by the grid were only gradually filled — a process that continues to this day. It is easy to forget that the trendy new hotspots of U-Walk, The Boulevard and Riyadh Front were dusty wastelands only a few years ago.

The emerging car-based metropolis provided order and efficiency and catered to a steadily growing population of locals and compound-dwelling expats. But the lack of pavements and overpasses proved a challenge for pedestrians, and, with few public transport options, Riyadh became a difficult place to live for those without a car.

The 1990s introduced a whole new dimension to the rapid growth of Riyadh: From horizontal to vertical. The Faisaliyah Center was the city’s first true skyscraper and very much the shape of things to come. Designed in 1994 by the UK’s Foster & Partners, the complex — unusual for its external superstructure and pointed apex — was unveiled six years later with its 30 floors of office space, three-story mall, globe-shaped restaurant, and observation deck with 360-degree views of the surrounding city.

Inaugurating his “Eiffel Tower of Riyadh,” Norman Foster said he “wanted a concept that was not only original but one that the community would be proud of in years to come.” 

Soon to follow in 2002 was the Kingdom Center — an SR 2 billion ($533.33 million) project and definitive landmark. Winner of the 2002 Emporis Skyscraper Award, the 99-story building has a more streamlined and elegant design than the Faisaliyah Center, a unique feature being its Sky-Bridge walkway.

Riyadh’s next big vertical development was the King Abdullah Financial City, imagined as a regional banking and finance hub to rival London’s Canary Wharf. This cluster of high-rise towers has radically altered the skyline.

By 2005, Riyadh was taking its place as a global city. But however dramatic Riyadh’s physical changes appeared, the virtual impact has arguably been more profound. With the growing ubiquity of smartphones, the Saudi capital quickly became known as a “smart city,” where every citizen has 24/7 online access to a full range of services. 

The Lausanne-based Institute for Management Development’s 2020 Smart City Index ranked Riyadh “ahead of Tokyo, Rome, Paris and Beijing in terms of digital connectivity to healthcare, mobility, leisure activities and governance.” 




The inaugural celebration of Diriyah Gate. (Supplied)

This tech prowess came into its own during the coronavirus disease pandemic, when the Kingdom’s ministries of interior and health quickly developed apps to provide support, enforce lockdowns and prevent large gatherings — resulting in one of the lowest infection rates on the planet.

Major public investments have also been made in key innovation hubs, such as the Riyadh Techno Valley on the King Saud University campus, the nearby Riyadh Knowledge Corridor and the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology — all reflections of a desire to create a knowledge-based economy, diversified away from oil.

Ironically, just as Riyadh emerges as a high-tech global city, there is a growing appreciation of its ancient cultural heritage. In the push for modernity and rapid expansion, most of Riyadh’s older buildings were razed. Now the prevailing mindset is changing in favor of Riyadh as a “city of culture.”

Riyadh has long had its share of well-curated museums, including the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, the Royal Saudi Air Force Museum and the Al-Masmaq Fortress, but there is now a broader ambition to restore entire historical districts.

The old royal seat of Diriyah is being lovingly rebuilt as “Diriyah Gate,” using traditional methods and materials. The mission statement of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority is “to anchor our vision for the future on a jewel from the Saudi past.” Floodlit at night, against the backdrop of the Wadi Hanifah, it is a memorable sight and a reminder that Riyadh has been a work in progress for hundreds if not thousands of years.




A man points at a map of the new Riyadh Metro in the Saudi capital on December 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

Seven decades of intense urban growth has led to a recognition that some mistakes were made in the process — one being the lack of attention paid to natural beauty and public spaces. Riyadh does boast a few parks — King Abdullah Park in Malaz is especially popular for its fountain displays — but one has to admit the city is short on greenery.

That is all about to change. As a key element of Vision 2030, the government is investing no less than SR 80 billion in Green Riyadh to improve its environment, infrastructure, transport, leisure and sports facilities.

Billed as “one of the most ambitious urban reforestation projects in the world”, Green Riyadh represents an effort to create “one of the top 100 cities in the world and eventually achieving the highest rank possible.”

The vast King Abdul Aziz airbase is being repurposed as King Salman Park — five times the size of London’s Hyde Park, featuring lakes, sports venues, museums, galleries, cycling routes and even an opera house. The design was awarded the 2020 International Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design.

Some 7.5 million trees are to be planted, irrigated by recycled sewage water, and the supergrid will soon have an integrated metro and bus network, reducing the city’s dependence upon automobiles.

This is a welcome new chapter in the continuing story of Riyadh, as it transforms into a green and sustainable city for the benefit of generations to come.


Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant

Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant
Updated 28 November 2021

Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant

Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant

LONDON: Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday it was temporarily suspending flights to and from seven African countries due to the outbreak of the newly discovered coronavirus strain, Omicron. 

The countries are Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius and Comoros, an official source from the Ministry of Interior told Saudi state news agency SPA.

Expats will be denied entry if they have been in any of the countries listed within the last 14 days before arrival in the Kingdom. 

Nationals and expats who are allowed entry will be required to quarantine for five days, including those who have been vaccinated. 

The Ministry of Interior called on those who entered Saudi Arabia after traveling to the list of banned countries after Nov. 1, to take a PCR test.


What do parents in Saudi Arabia really think about distance learning?

Schools in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children. (SPA)
Schools in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children. (SPA)
Updated 28 November 2021

What do parents in Saudi Arabia really think about distance learning?

Schools in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children. (SPA)
  • After education minister said 83% of parents believe online education has been good for kids’ mental health, we talk those on both sides of the debate

JEDDAH: Distance learning was a necessity imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the past 18 months there has been a great deal of debate, globally, about the merits or otherwise of remote education and how well its extended use has served students during these difficult times.

In Saudi Arabia, however, parents appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of distance learning, according to figures quoted by Education Minister Hamad Al-Sheikh. Speaking last month at the Saudi Family Forum, organized by the Family Affairs Council, he said 83 percent of parents believe that remote education has positively affected their children’s mental and psychological health. He added that it is here to stay, in some form, even after the pandemic ends because it has become a pillar of the education system.
Saudi authorities responded to the need to close classrooms during the pandemic by developing the Madrasati, or “My School,” platform as a gateway to keep students at all levels, from first to 12th grade, and their parents connected with schools and teachers in an attempt to provide the best possible online educational experience. To help achieve this it provides access to textbooks, notes, study materials, videos, tutorials and more besides. In the first week after its launch in September 2020, the free platform logged 41 million visits.
Redha Omda, a father of three in Jeddah, told Arab News that teachers are using new techniques to enhance the online learning environment, and applauded the increased use of technology.
“I like how technology is playing a big part in the educational sector,” he said. “Teachers are contacting me through WhatsApp and they are more accessible than before.

BACKGROUND

Saudi authorities responded to the need to close classrooms during the pandemic by developing the Madrasati, or ‘My School,’ platform as a gateway to keep students at all levels, from first to 12th grade, and their parents connected with schools and teachers in an attempt to provide the best possible online educational experience. To help achieve this it provides access to textbooks, notes, study materials, videos, tutorials and more besides.

“The Madrasati platform is linked to the parent’s Tawakkalna app, which is amazing, and it lets me know everything about my kids. I am also impressed by how my kids are using technology in a way that I did not imagine.”
Bara’a Alfergani, a mother of two living in Jeddah, said that distance learning saves students a lot of time.
“Study at home is better than attending eight hours of classes every day and then coming home with homework to do,” she said. “It is much easier to attend online and do homework at the same place.”

In the first week after Madrasati launch in September 2020, the free platform logged 41 million visits.

Alfergani added that it also makes it easier for her to keep an eye on her children and be more involved in their education.
The Ministry of Education has indicated that the future of learning in Saudi Arabia will involve some form of hybrid learning, as the concept of distance education has evolved as a result of the global health crisis.
Joud Al-Harbi, a 23-year-old college student from Jeddah, said that online education is a much better option than attending classes.
“It allows me to do many things at the same time,” she said. “I interact with my instructors, and most of my collegemates understand the subjects easily.”
One of her friends has a sick child, she added, and prefers to take classes online because it gives her more time to care for the youngster.
Schools and other educational institutions in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children.
Not all parents agree that distance learning has been a good thing, however. Stay-at-home mom Mashael Al-Sahli said it has had an adverse psychological effect on her two children because it has deprived them of a social life.
“Building social skills starts at school and it is an important factor of the growing process,” she said. “It was something we didn’t feel until schools were closed.”
Not only were her children deprived of the school environment, activities and their friends, she said, even though the online learning system that has been developed is good she nevertheless has found the learning process to be difficult.
“The kids can’t even see the teachers’ gestures or body language,” she added.
Nahedh Almwalad, an elementary school teacher in Jeddah, said that children have a lot of energy and their attention span is limited, which can be a challenge with online education, but added that it can help to teach them patience.


15,000 residency, labor, border violators arrested across Saudi Arabia

15,000 residency, labor, border violators arrested across Saudi Arabia
Updated 28 November 2021

15,000 residency, labor, border violators arrested across Saudi Arabia

15,000 residency, labor, border violators arrested across Saudi Arabia
  • The authorities transferred 75,649 offenders to their respective diplomatic missions to obtain travel documents

RIYADH: Saudi authorities arrested almost 15,000 people in one week for breaching residency, work, and border security regulations, an official report has revealed.

During the period Nov. 18 to 24, a total of 7,552 arrests were made for violations of residency rules, while 5,699 people were held over illegal border crossing attempts, and a further 1,529 on labor-related issues.

The report’s findings showed that among 429 arrested while trying to cross the border into the Kingdom, 70 percent were Yemeni citizens, 28 percent Ethiopians, and 2 percent other nationalities.

A further 36 people were caught trying to cross into neighboring countries, and 14 were held for involvement in transporting and harboring violators.

The authorities transferred 75,649 offenders to their respective diplomatic missions to obtain travel documents, while 2,048 were transferred to complete their travel reservations and 9,586 were deported.

The Ministry of Interior pointed out that anyone found to be helping people gain illegal entry to the Kingdom, and transporting, or providing shelter for them could face imprisonment for a maximum of 15 years, a fine of up to SR1 million ($260,000), or confiscation of vehicles and property.

Suspected violations can be reported on the toll-free number 911 in the Makkah and Riyadh regions, and 999 or 996 in other regions of the Kingdom.


Saudi Arabia’s Space101 training program launched for undergraduates

Space101 training program launched for undergraduates. (Shutterstock)
Space101 training program launched for undergraduates. (Shutterstock)
Updated 28 November 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Space101 training program launched for undergraduates

Space101 training program launched for undergraduates. (Shutterstock)
  • The commission explained that the training focuses on the basics of space science and technology by implementing professional programs under expert supervision

RIYADH: The Saudi Space Commission recently launched its first specialized training program in the field of space and space technology in cooperation with Airbus Defense and Space.
The program aims to raise the level of education and practical know-how in the space sector for undergraduates and those interested in learning space science.
The commission explained that the training focuses on the basics of space science and technology by implementing professional programs under expert supervision.
The training program is the result of a partnership agreement concluded on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress 2022 in October between the Saudi commission and Airbus to train national cadres in the space sector and provide job opportunities for trainees in the field.
It also contributes to achieving the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 by developing national human capabilities and qualifying them for the labor market.
Those wishing to register for the Space101 training program can do so via the following link: https://initiativesportal.saudispace.gov.sa/ar/user/login?destination=/ar/space101

 


Saudi initiative to develop digital capabilities of young people

Women attend a hackathon in Jeddah. (AFP file photo)
Women attend a hackathon in Jeddah. (AFP file photo)
Updated 28 November 2021

Saudi initiative to develop digital capabilities of young people

Women attend a hackathon in Jeddah. (AFP file photo)
  • The initiative focuses on analyzing eight basic digital skills, including managing cybersecurity by protecting personal data and addressing cyber-attacks, managing cyber-bullying by promoting awareness of how to combat it

JEDDAH: The governorate of Makkah region, in partnership with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, is implementing the Future Champions initiative to develop digital capabilities for young people.

Under the slogan “How to be a role model in the digital world,” and through the sixth session of the Makkah Cultural Forum, the initiative aims to enhance digital citizenship, raise awareness and teach the optimal use of IT and communication.

It also aims to study the awareness of community members in the use of digital world applications and their enjoyment of skills and sound ethics through the use of the Internet and technology by analyzing a set of digital patterns and studying the behavior of individuals in the digital space.

The initiative focuses on analyzing eight basic digital skills, including managing cybersecurity by protecting personal data and addressing cyber-attacks, managing cyber-bullying by promoting awareness of how to combat it, and managing privacy by safely handling personal data when requested on the Internet.

Other skills include sound thinking and owning tools to distinguish between correct and incorrect information, managing digital footprint by understanding its nature and the real consequences, digital empathy with people in the virtual world and knowing their needs and feelings, managing screen time through self-control and time management, and digital national identity and showing it healthily and fairly.

This is achieved through an initial questionnaire to measure basic digital skills among individuals. More than 50,000 participants take part in the questionnaire.

Through its active partnership with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the governorate of Makkah contributes to promoting the concept of digital citizenship and providing digital role models within the forum’s programs by presenting a diverse initiative that takes place in the cities and towns of the region.

It targets all segments of society to develop the region and its digital space in line with national efforts to create a new stage in communications and IT by employing smart systems, digital algorithms, analyzing big data and using the techniques of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in its cities and the work of its sectors to make the Kingdom a leading digital model.