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Tue 7 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Capital gains

Change will come slowly in Riyadh.

Capital gains

It is perhaps fitting that as Saudi Arabia seems to grow in importance for our readership, unlikely adjectives – modern, fast-paced, exciting – are increasingly used to describe it.

Just the other day I received a press release from Cityscape Riyadh which claimed that the Saudi capital was “on the verge of becoming a fast-paced commercial and lifestyle hub”. I do not know Riyadh well, but as I understand it, it is not a city known for either its pace or its lifestyle.

But Cityscape is obviously just doing its job. The property road show hits Riyadh next month, and the organizers are hardly going to drum up support by branding the Saudi capital a dusty, dry, oppressive urban sprawl, but still, one has to wonder if the author cracked a smile as he wrote this particular press release.

But then maybe not, after all the pace of development in Riyadh over the last 12 months is staggering given the global economic situation. Around 1.1 million m2 of office space is currently underway in the capital, and the recently announced SAR 15 million expansion of the Riyadh Governorate will only add to that.

At the same time, the kingdom is currently the top destination for foreign direct investment (FDI), which was worth SAR135 billion last year. Money is flooding in to the country, which is all the more remarkable given its draconian visa policy and maddening bureaucracy.

This has been summed up neatly by those at Cityscape as the ‘New Riyadh brand’, a ‘4 to 5 year process’ that will see Riyadh converted from a dusty, under-supplied and old-fashioned city to a commercial hub.

There is evidence on the ground that Riyadh is developing from the dusty, under-supplied and old-fashioned city that it has always been known as. The Agha Khan-winning work by the Riyadh Development Authority and Buro Happold converting the city’s long-dry and polluted Wadi Hanifah into a municipal park is demonstrative of this.

But at the same time, the New Riyadh Brand predicted by those at Cityscape is going to take more than five years, much more. Consider that it took the ADA and Buro Happold years to persuade the concerned authorities that the Wadi Hanifah project was a good idea, and then a further decade to produce.

Riyadh remains a city with significant challenges, not least a population that has ballooned from some 150,000 in 1960 to over 5 million today, and is expected to top 10 million by 2021. The challenges that this poses are monumental, and developments like KAFD and the Riyadh Consulate work tackle the very tip of the iceberg.

Few can blame developers, designers and Cityscape organisers for being optimistic as we head into 2011, but those predicting a economic and business revolution in Riyadh would do well not to get carried away.

Orlando Crowcroft, is the editor of Middle East Architect.

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