By Orlando Crowcroft
Luxury flats and giant glass towers may not be what the KSA needs.
The boost in web traffic that follows a story from Saudi Arabia on ConstructionWeekOnline, Middle East Architect's sister website, proves conclusively that in 2010, Saudi sells.
While other GCC markets are expanding fast it is the KSA that our readers are most interested in, and MEA's trip to Cityscape Jeddah last month only re-affirmed this view. The vast majority of firms which are not already in the kingdom, are on their way in, and there were as many designers and architects at Cityscape as there were developers, if not more.
When you ask people why Saudi Arabia is such an attractive market, the reply usually involves the figure 27 million, which is the expected population by the end of 2010, and is quickly followed by the number 80, the percentage of the population under the age of 39. Delve further, and the kingdom's need for housing, as well as the ambition of the royal family, will soon come up too.
The perception is that once the country actually writes and passes its long awaited mortgage law, a massive number of young Saudis will go out and buy their first home and developers will be overwhelmed by cash-rich young families. Designers and contractors, for their part, will be drafted in their droves to make their client's plans reality, and everyone, everyone, will get filthy, stinking rich.
But a quick look at many of the projects on the boards for Saudi reveal that there is a significant mismatch between the kind of properties that developers and designers are working on in the kingdom, and the kind that are needed. Developers seem ever-willing to point to Saudi's need for housing, while erecting towers and villas that none but the richest of the population can afford.
In an excellent article last month in the Saudi Gazette, a journalist went stand to stand asking Cityscape exhibitors how much of their developments were put aside for affordable housing - not one of them could give an answer.
This is not just a moral issue either. The fact of the matter is that the emphasis on luxury developments in the KSA is unsustainable, and justifying these developments with Saudi Arabia's housing shortages is not just shortsighted, it's dangerous. Building luxury apartment blocks does nothing to ease the kingdom's housing shortage, and if locals won't buy them, it's hard to see who will.
This is the real challenge for Saudi Arabia. How can the country house the vast majority of its population who cannot afford to live in luxury flats? How can it effectively repair the infrastructure in run-down cities like Jeddah? How can it renovate its beautiful architecture without bulldozers and dynamite?
This kind of work may not be glamorous, and it may not make anyone rich, but it is what Saudi Arabia really needs - and surely that has to count for something.
Orlando Crowcroft is the editor of Middle East Architect.