RIYADH: Saudi Arabia is once again pushing the boundaries of urban design with the launch of the New Murabba Development Company, which aims to build the world’s largest modern downtown in the Kingdom’s capital Riyadh.
The crown jewel of the planned development is The Mukaab, which means cube in Arabic. At 400 meters in height, 400 meters in width, and 400 meters in length, developers say the structure will be the largest inner-city building in the world.
Inside this gigantic cube, the exterior of which will be inspired by the region’s traditional Najdi architectural style, will be the world’s first immersive destination — created through digital and virtual technology with the latest holographics.
This “immersive experiential” structure will house 2 million square meters of floor space and a premium hospitality destination encompassing retail, cultural and tourist attractions, alongside hotel and residential units, commercial spaces, and recreational facilities.
“There is a tendency among Western and Arab observers to dismiss such projects out of hand, describing them as acts of folly, and the outcome of people with too much money,” Yasser Elsheshtawy, adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University, New York and non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Arab News.
“But if we look at it objectively, it is much more than that. Having been involved with one of the teams that were invited to compete for the project, I can attest that there is serious thinking involved in such schemes.
“For one, it will provide a unique and unprecedented experience utilizing the latest technological advances in virtual reality. Visitors entering the Mukaab will encounter projections of varying landscapes, which will also be seen from the apartments comprising a spiral tower in the middle of the cube.
“Furthermore, it will provide Riyadh with a unique icon that will make the city instantly recognizable among other world cities,” akin to the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House, he added.
The announcement, made on Feb. 16 by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund and NMDC, is part of a strategy to develop local industries, enhance the private sector, and provide new platforms for local content, real estate, and non-oil sources of revenue.
New Murabba is the latest of the Kingdom’s roster of mega- and giga-projects — which include NEOM, Red Sea Global, Diriyah Gate, Qiddiya, Aseer and Amaala — whose overarching objective is to transform Saudi Arabia into a world leader in tourism, technology and the creative industries.
New Murabba will be located at the intersection of King Salman and King Khalid roads in the northwest of Riyadh. It will encompass an area of 19 sq. km, and will accommodate hundreds of thousands of residents.
In total, the project will offer 25 million square meters of floor area, including more than 104,000 residential units, 9,000 hotel rooms, and more than 980,000 square meters of retail space, in addition to 1.4 million square meters of office space, 620,000 square meters of leisure assets, and 1.8 million square meters of space dedicated to community facilities.
According to the PIF announcement, New Murabba will offer a unique living, working and entertainment experience within a 15-minute walking radius and will have its own internal transport system. It will be approximately a 20-minute drive from Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport.
Sustainability will be a core principle of the project — another key facet of Riyadh’s transformation and urban renaissance. It will feature green spaces for walking and cycling paths to enhance the quality of life, encourage healthy, active lifestyles, and bring the community together.
The project will also include a museum, a technology and design university, more than 80 entertainment and cultural venues and a multipurpose theater.
New Murabba is a stunning addition to Riyadh’s future development plans, which were unveiled in detail by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference at the end of October 2022.
“True growth begins in the city, whether in terms of industry, innovation, education, services, or other sectors,” the crown prince said at the event, which was organized under the theme, “the neo-renaissance.”
Plans for a “Riyadh renaissance” will be implemented by Fahd Al-Rasheed, CEO of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City.
It will not be a straightforward undertaking, however. The history of Riyadh is one that has time and again overcome the challenges of rapid urban development.
As architectural expert Saleh Al-Hathloul noted in the journal Scientific Research, “Riyadh had grown from a 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.”
Architects around the world, particularly those already working in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, have often mused about Riyadh’s gravity-defying development schemes.
“The latest generation of Saudi projects are of such a scale and ambition that they seem to defy judgment,” Reina de Graaf, partner at OMA, a leading international architectural and design studio, told Arab News.
“Folly or foresight? Misguided or spot-on? … Either way, impossible to ignore.”
Similar doubts had been cast when Dubai, the glittering emirate and only Arab city to host the World Expo so far, was in the midst of doubling its population in a decade more than once in the UAE’s 50-year history.
“Such rapid urban expansion is not implausible, but you have to learn from the experience of other world cities,” Jeff Merritt, a San Francisco-based expert in smart cities and urban transformation for the World Economic Forum, told Arab News in February 2021.
Although ground-breaking, Riyadh’s plans for urban development do pose challenges, not least because of its booming population.
“My concern centers on the impact such a project will have on Riyadh’s urban landscape,” said Elsheshtawy.
“As the master plan specifies, The Mukaab is part of a much larger development — the New Murabba district, a residential and commercial neighborhood benefiting from the proximity of such a massive icon.
“Planners need to ensure that this is not perceived as an enclave for the wealthy and that it integrates with the city at large. Connections need to be established to ensure that the district and the icon are accessible to a broad swathe of people, and that it is not a purely commercial and profit-driven enterprise.
“Thus, the development should include affordable housing, and The Mukaab should be open and accessible for all residents of Riyadh.”
Elsheshtawy believes that further visual and perceptual studies are needed to mitigate the impact of The Mukaab given its scale.
“Its size is immense — comparable perhaps to the Pyramids,” he said. “But those are located at the city’s fringe and not amid residential areas. Thus, its mass needs to be further modified and opened so that it does not become an inscrutable monolith, oppressive and overwhelming.”
Elsheshtawy is nevertheless convinced the project could become a defining landmark of Saudi Arabia.
“The sheer audacity of the project, given its immense scale, will ensure that there will be a steady flow of tourists,” he said, adding that this will “benefit the local economy and respond to Vision 2030 — the Kingdom’s blueprint for economic diversification.”