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)
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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.


Stunning French soprano enthralls Jeddah audience

Clara Barbier Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini. Her journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. (Photos/ Hayy Jameel)
Clara Barbier Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini. Her journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. (Photos/ Hayy Jameel)
Updated 24 January 2022

Stunning French soprano enthralls Jeddah audience

Clara Barbier Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini. Her journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. (Photos/ Hayy Jameel)
  • Clara Barbier Serrano performs arias taking audience on a special journey through European history
  • To be in this place in this Maraya concert hall was just incredible, because it’s beautiful; it’s so magical how we can bring this music to the whole world, and then people will somehow connect to it

JEDDAH: The first recipient of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship, French soprano Clara Barbier Serrano, thrilled a Jeddah audience with her stunning performance on the Hayy Jameel stage on Jan. 22.

Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini, taking the Jeddawi audience on a special journey through European history from the 17th to the 20th centuries, via Italian opera, Mozart and finishing with French songs, accompanied by a pianist to complete a beautiful, intimate recital.
This event is considered the first classical music performance at Hayy Jameel.
In an exclusive interview at Hayy Jameel, Serrano told Arab News that she was lucky to receive the scholarship as it created chances for her, including the opportunity to perform next to Bocelli at different locations throughout the world.
“I had my first performance next to Bocelli after I received the Bocelli-Jameel scholarship, it is really always a pleasure to sing next to him,” she said.
“Now I feel more at ease when we’re on the stage together. I’m more relaxed than before because I know him a little bit. There is very nice energy that he gives on stage.”
The talented young singer performed the day before with Bocelli at one of the Kingdom’s prominent cultural destinations, the award-winning Maraya in AlUla.
“To be in this place in this Maraya concert hall was just incredible, because it’s beautiful; it’s so magical how we can bring this music to the whole world, and then people will somehow connect to it,” she said.
As a child, Serrano said that she did not know much about opera. “My family also didn’t listen to classical music, I was not particularly into it. I was listening more to jazz and things like that.”
Serrano’s journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. “I played the violin as a kid, and I took so many musical classes, singing in the choir, and playing the violin, I got more and more interested in the voice and then my teachers would tell me, you have a nice voice you should think solo, and that’s how I got interested in opera or more in lyrical singing.”
“At the time, I hadn’t seen many operas in my life. And it’s a very particular form of art actually. However, this interest in the voice just led me to practice this kind of singing,” she said.
Serrano said that when an opera is performed on stage a great narrative combination happens. “When we are on stage, it is like a story and a plot, it is like a theater piece being performed in a music style. The technique and the way we use our body to make the sound are very emotional. You have to take people with you in something very personal.”
Serrano received the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship in 2020; she was rewarded with a two-year diploma in opera and a chance for her to be fully immersed in the opera world.
“I have been studying opera classical singing for six years, including my four years of bachelor in art and music in Germany, and now I am doing a special kind of postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music in London,” she said.
Serrano performed with Bocelli in the 2020 “Believe in Christmas” concert at the Teatro Regio di Parma, at the annual Concerto di Natale in Assisi in 2020, and in 2021 at the Teatro di Silenzio in Bocelli’s Tuscan hometown of Lajatico.
The opera scholarship is open to students from around the world. Community Jameel, which supports the scholarship, and Art Jameel, which runs Hayy Jameel, are sister organizations founded by the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia.
The Andrea Bocelli Foundation and Community Jameel scholarship were established in 2019, with the aim of supporting up-and-coming singers to study opera at the Royal College of Music in London. The second Bocelli-Jameel Scholar was awarded to Egyptian talent Laura Mekhail in 2021.


Saudi Arabia and Romania sign defense cooperation agreement

Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs Khalid Al-Bayari and Romanian State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations Simona Cojocaru sign the agreement. (SPA)
Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs Khalid Al-Bayari and Romanian State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations Simona Cojocaru sign the agreement. (SPA)
Updated 25 January 2022

Saudi Arabia and Romania sign defense cooperation agreement

Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs Khalid Al-Bayari and Romanian State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations Simona Cojocaru sign the agreement. (SPA)

RIYADH: The Saudi and Romanian governments signed an agreement for cooperation in the defense field, state-run SPA news agency reported on Monday.
The agreement covered a number of defense fields between the two countries, most notably training, exchanging expertise, technologies, developing communications systems, medical services, military history, archives, publications and museums, among others.
“The agreement comes within the commitment of the two governments to promote and encourage international peace and stability,” the statement said.
The deal was signed by Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs Dr. Khalid bin Hussein Al-Bayari and Romanian State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations Simona Cojocaru.


Internal Audit Conference to start today in Riyadh

The conference will be held under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari. (SPA)
The conference will be held under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari. (SPA)
Updated 25 January 2022

Internal Audit Conference to start today in Riyadh

The conference will be held under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari. (SPA)
  • The conference will host 30 local and international leaders and experts specialized in internal auditing and control systems

RIYADH: The activities of the 8th annual internal audit conference starts in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Organized by the Saudi Institute of Internal Auditors, the conference will be held under the slogan “The Future of Internal Audit,” under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari the president of the General Auditing Bureau and chairman of the board of directors of Institute of Internal Auditors.

The two-day conference aims to review the developments of the internal audit profession and control systems globally, chart the future of the profession according to worldwide developments and enhance the characteristics of flexible leadership for the profession in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

The conference will host 30 local and international leaders and experts specialized in internal auditing and control systems, in addition to a number of representatives of international organizations and companies, led by the president and CEO of the International Institute of Internal Auditors , Anthony Pugliese.

The conference will include dialogue sessions, presentations and specialized workshops, discussing the new trends in internal auditing and risk tools in leading control systems in enterprises, as well as role of governance in crisis management and business continuity and growing demand for internal auditing in the Kingdom.


Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center

Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center
Updated 25 January 2022

Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center

Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center
  • Saudi Arabia takes over the presidency from Bahrain

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has assumed the presidency of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Commercial Arbitration Center and will be headed by the Kingdom’s representative Fahd bin Ali Al-Omari, Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
Saudi Arabia takes over the presidency from Bahrain following a decision made during a board of directors meeting in December.
Tariq Yousef Al-Shammari, the center’s secretary-general, said that Al-Omari is regarded as one of the most prominent legal figures in the Kingdom, and holds a leading position in the Federation of Saudi Chambers.
He also served as vice chairman of the disciplinary committee in the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and participated in several research projects on economic systems.
Bahrain’s representative and former president, Sami Zainal, praised the GCC’s accomplishments over the past year and the efforts made by the General Secretariat to achieve the center’s strategic objectives.
Oman’s Ali bin Salem Al Kasbi assumed the position of vice president.


Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia

Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia
Updated 24 January 2022

Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia

Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia
  • The Kingdom will host a brand new Cirque du Soleil resident show unique to Saudi Arabia
  • The deal also says the two parties will establish a regional Cirque du Soleil academy and office

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture has signed an agreement with the Canadian entertainment group Cirque du Soleil to enable it to put on its renowned creative performances in the Kingdom.
The agreement was signed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, minister of culture and chairman of the Theater and Performing Arts Authority, and Gabriel de Alba, co-chairman of Cirque du Soleil, at a meeting held in New York City.
The agreement will see Cirque du Soleil present a number of award-winning circus shows for the first time in the Kingdom, including touring shows such as “The Illusionist,” “Now You See Me,” “Paw Patrol Live,” “Race to Rescue,” “Trolls Live,” and the Blue Man Group’s world tour. The Kingdom will also host a brand new Cirque du Soleil resident show unique to Saudi Arabia.
The agreement also says the two parties will establish a regional Cirque du Soleil academy and office, to provide a curriculum of high standards led by the best global circus experts. Students from all over the Kingdom and abroad will have the opportunity to hone their performance skills through the circus’ international school exchange and artist-in-residence programs, and will also be awarded internationally recognized certificates.

Cirque du Soleil has presented six shows in Saudi Arabia since 2018, the last of which was the “Messi 10” show, which was held in November during the Riyadh Season and shed light on the life of the famous Argentine footballer Lionel Messi.
The agreement comes with the performing arts witnessing greater development in the Kingdom, especially after the establishment of the Theater and Performing Arts Authority, which announced its strategy to further improve the sector last year.
The plan includes better infrastructure for theater and performing arts, providing job opportunities, building partnerships, and providing educational and training opportunities for about 4,500 playwrights and more than 4,000 trainees by 2030.