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Sat 20 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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The usual urban planning rules don’t apply to Jeddah

One of the beneficiaries of the massive construction boom in Saudi Arabia - a boom that at the moment shows no signs of abating despite what is happening elsewhere in the world - is the redevelopment of Jeddah's Corniche.

One of the beneficiaries of the massive construction boom in Saudi Arabia - a boom that at the moment shows no signs of abating despite what is happening elsewhere in the world - is the redevelopment of Jeddah's Corniche.

The corniche, a 101km stretch of beachfront on the Red Sea, has never quite lived up to its reputation as one of the crown jewels of the cosmopolitan Jeddah. At least that was my impression when I first arrived in the city in 2004.

Jeddah was my home for three years, but the corniche doesn't offer much beyond some rather exceptional restaurants with remarkable seafood on the menu and the five-star hotels that dot the northern stretch of coastline.

The area is often strewn with trash. Teenagers race about on ATVs on sidewalks narrowly missing young children walking with their parents. And the abundance of feral cats makes outdoor dining somewhat an adventure.

Yet families flock to the corniche on comfortable weekend evenings. They bring picnic dinners and mats and lounge about all evening drinking tea and watching the kids play. There just aren't a whole lot of places for families to go to in Jeddah and the corniche is a natural gathering spot.

Keppel Al Numu, a joint venture company formed between the Singapore-based Keppel Land and the Saudi Economic Development Company (Sedco), promises to inject new blood into an area of Jeddah that desperately needs a facelift.

Among a number of projects, Keppel Al Numu is planning a US $801 million luxury residential development, which includes two residential towers with nearly 1000 luxury apartments.

The Dubai-based Damac Properties is also planning the 40-storey Al Jawharah residential tower that will be built between the Hilton and Westin hotels. Completion is expected in 2010, although I wonder just how badly the new residential skyscraper, which will tower over these two hotels, will obstruct the stunning view of the Red Sea.

There also is a heavy push to lure tourists to the corniche with proposed parks, recreation centers, sports facilities, retail centers and even more restaurants. Also slated for the area is a much-needed museum. The current museum, located in a historic residential home in the center of Old Jeddah, is woefully inadequate by any standard.

Perhaps the most ambitious project is the proposed "Jeddah Eye," which mimics the London Eye in almost every detail.

This is all well and good for Jeddah. It will infuse the city with tourist cash and bring a heightened sense of vibrancy to an already vibrant city, akin to Cairo in the 1940s, Beirut in the ‘70s and Dubai today.

But Jeddah is not Dubai. Already questions are being raised in the Kingdom's segregated society about what kind of recreational facilities will be provided for women. And perhaps even more important, what will bachelors - long barred from most recreational areas designed specifically for families - do for recreation. Will foreign tourists and Saudis have equal access to all that a modernised Jeddah have to offer?

And once the projects are completed will the Jeddah Municipality, which is not particularly known for its high regard to maintenance, rubbish pickup and attention to infrastructure, commit the financial resources to ensure a high standard that will indeed guarantee that the corniche will remain the crown jewel of the city, if not the region?

Saudi Arabia is a country of special needs in which the usual urban planning rules don't apply due to its cultural and religious roots. If the Jeddah authorities can manage to negotiate a middle ground with builders using foreign money, then Jeddah, especially the corniche, will live up to its reputation.

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction Week.

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