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Sat 10 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Arabian sights

Luxury flats and glass towers may not be what Saudi Arabia needs.

Arabian sights

The boost in web traffic that follows a story from Saudi Arabia on Construction Week Online proves conclusively that in 2010, Saudi sells.

While other GCC markets are expanding fast, Abu Dhabi and Egypt among them, it is the KSA that our readers are most interested in, and taking a look at turnout at Cityscape Jeddah last month would only re-affirm this view. The vast majority of firms 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.

The projects on display in Jeddah would have the eyes of anyone in the construction industry watering - millions of square meters of offices, vast reconstruction projects, metro lines, airports and malls. Cities from Al Khobar to Mecca are growing, and more often than not, the government is fronting the cash.

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. But above all, it is the kingdom's dire need for housing that is most often cited as the reason Saudi is the place to be in 2010.

The perception is that once the country actually draws up 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 inundated 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.

At least that's the plan. The reality is, as always, somewhat more complicated. Firstly there is a significant mismatch between the kind of properties that developers are working on in the kingdom, and the kind needed. Saudi's 80% do not need luxury penthouses in shiny glass towers, they need affordable family homes. Developers are ever willing to sing from the rooftops about the needs of Saudi's young population, while erecting housing that none but the richest will ever be able to buy.

In an excellent article last month, a journalist from the Saudi Gazette, a Jeddah-based newspaper, went stand to stand at Cityscape asking exhibitors how much of their developments were put aside for affordable housing - not one of them could give an answer, and most admitted that ‘it was not that kind of development'.

In fact, only one stand at Cityscape Jeddah had anything to do with solving Jeddah's housing problems, and that was the Jeddah Development and Regeneration Council, which has outlined a four-phase plan to redevelop the city's slums, home to an estimated one million people. This scheme should be commended for its recognition, at last, that Saudi's coastal hub has a problem, and proposing a solution to it. At the same time, the JDRC's plans are so pie in the sky it is difficult to imagine it achieving even a tiny percentage of the development in the next two decades - by which time Saudi will have more luxury apartments than it could ever possibly need.

The fact of the matter is that, like certain other Gulf markets, the emphasis on luxury developments in KSA is unsustainable, and justifying these developments with Saudi Arabia's housing shortages is not just shortsighted, it's dangerous. As designers, developers and contractors pile into the kingdom with their luxury projects, they should bear in mind what has happened to other countries where housing stock did not match the needs of the population.

And this is the real challenge for Saudi Arabia, one that international firms looking to operate there should think about. How can the country house the vast majority of its population, who cannot afford to live in luxury apartments? 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 design may not be glamorous, it may not make anyone a millionaire, 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.