City Without Limits: A profile of Riyadh

27 November 2002

A square triumphal arch rises above the outskirts of Riyadh, the latest in a series of corporate monoliths that have sprung up across Saudi Arabia in the last few years. The shape of the new headquarters of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) echoes the portico designs of early Islamic art. Saudi architect Zuhair Fayez likes to see his creation as a symbolic gateway to the capital, sitting as it does on the main arterial road from the city airport. But even he acknowledges it will soon be swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Riyadh.

Only a few years ago, this was an expanse of featureless desert. By 2010, the limits of the metropolis will reach King Khaled airport, a 30-kilometre drive north from downtown Olaya. 'In Riyadh, the rising price of land means that developers end up leap-frogging the expensive areas and building on the outskirts of town,' says Fayez. 'This is how cities grow out of control. In Riyadh the planners will have to keep pace with growth or the city will suffocate.'

Desert bloom

Situated at the confluence of three wadis, Riyadh has sprung up from a natural oasis in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula - its name derives from the plural of the Arabic 'rowdhah', meaning garden. There are now more than 400,000 hectares of cultivated land around the city, producing about 40 per cent of the kingdom's grain and half its annual production of wheat. But this green belt is gradually being encroached by a concrete jungle.

'Only a few decades ago, Riyadh was a small city covering about one square kilometre,' says Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, director of research and planning for the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh. 'Now it is the fastest growing capital in the world, and the city is doubling in size every 10 years.'

When King Abdulaziz captured Riyadh in 1902, it was a small adobe-built trading post. By the time the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, some 30,000 inhabitants lived inside the city walls. Riyadh now covers about 950 square kilometres - one-and-a-half times the size of Bahrain. Over the last decade, the population has grown at an average rate of 8.1 per cent a year, and is projected to reach nearly 11 million by 2021.

Not only is the civic population growing far beyond the national average, so is the municipal economy - industrial investment is growing by 3.1 per cent a year, compared with the 1.6 per cent average for the kingdom as a whole. This has attracted even more Saudis from rural areas to the city. The wellspring of local and foreign workers has helped the desert city to blossom, but the burgeoning population now threatens to overwhelm existing infrastructure.

'We have been able to deal with the population growth in the city due to financial support from the government,' says the mayor of Riyadh, Abdulaziz al-Mogrin. 'But the long-term trends are worrying.'

As cities grow they become increasingly complex and their development becomes increasingly unpredictable. 'Cities don't follow the ideas of the planners. You have to constantly go back to the masterplan to adjust it,' says Fayez.

The architects of Riyadh's expansion have learned from experience to stay one step ahead of the game. In his office high in the fortress headquarters of the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh, Al-Sheikh draws two concentric circles on the blotter in front of him, and encloses them in a larger triangle. The circles represent the urban limits of the city according to planners' projections: by 2005, Riyadh will have filled the 1,782-square-kilometre area represented by the larger of the two circles.

'Riyadh has a long experience of masterplans,' says Al-Sheikh. 'We drew up the first one in 1968, but the growth of the city went beyond the expectations of the plan. So in 1981 we revised the masterplan. Once again, the growth went beyond our expectations, so we drew up a new metropolitan development plan, known as Medstar. That was

completed last year and we are in the

implementation phase now. It is a continuous planning process.'


The problem facing authorities is partly of their own making. Flush with revenues from the oil industry, since the 1970s the government has distributed tens of thousands of plots in the city suburbs free of charge to those most in need. 'The strategic plan has been to develop north and west of the city, and the municipality is providing parcels of land for young Saudis way out from the centre,' says Turki Abdulrahman, president of Dar Al-Riyadh Consultants, which has been providing advisory services for Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA), the executive arm of the high commission. 'But it is very unfortunate that services tend to follow construction, rather than the other way round.'

The authorities hope to keep up with the demand from outlying areas by devolving civic services away from the centre of town. 'The main concept behind Medstar, physically, is to decentralise services and transfer the focus to five new city centres,' Al-Sheikh explains. Under the urban development strategy, two new suburban centres will be created to the north and to the south, about 30 kilometres from the city centre. These will in turn be connected by 'service corridors' to three new urban centres to be developed around the Diplomatic Area, the Royal Court and the old city airport. Industrial monocultures - healthcare or heavy industry, for example - will be cultivated around each centre.

Besides acting as focal points for the development of infrastructure, the new municipal centres are also intended to relieve congestion in the centre of the city. The main axis of King Fahd Highway and Mecca Road is already close to gridlock during rush-hour, and traffic volume in Riyadh is expected to increase three-fold to 15 million car trips a day by 2021. ADA is now working on a feasibility study for a public transport network - a monorail system is the most attractive candidate, according to Al-Sheikh - and authorities are preparing to conduct a traffic management study on Olaya Street.

Highs and lows

Besides the escarpment of Wadi Hanifah to the west, there are few natural impediments to the development of Riyadh. From its central hub the city fans outwards in fields of low-level, low-density housing. Even in the city centre high-rise developments are limited by decree to the strip of commercial property between King Fahd highway and Olaya Street.

All this is about to change, however. 'It was only five or six years ago that we decided to revise the regulations to allow buildings like the Faisaliah Centre and the Kingdom Centre,' says Al-Sheikh. 'Our aim now is to remove height restrictions in some other areas. In general, there are 50 dwelling units per hectare in the city, and our plan is to raise it to 90 units by 2021. By doing this, not only do things like public transport become feasible, but you can also accommodate the 10.5 million people we expect to have by then.'

One impediment that will be hard to overcome for planners is the natural entrepreneurial spirit of the city's inhabitants. Fed by the need for new housing, Riyadh's middle-age spread has been inflated by property speculation.

'People here often buy land to make quick returns,' says Othman Al-Washmi, director of local Omrania & Associates, which designed the landmark Kingdom Centre. 'In most of Riyadh now the land is worth more than the buildings on it, and there is a new breed of developers who make their money from short-term commercial developments like car showrooms. However, removing height restrictions would almost certainly lead to a construction boom.'


Riyadh is above all a functional city built for commerce. Still, authorities are wary of letting commercial speculation get out of hand. The cautious planning of the last four decades has reaped considerable dividends, including the careful preservation of city parks and historical monuments. In a recent opinion poll conducted among 5,200 Gulf citizens, Riyadh was voted the most beautiful city in the region.

Anyone caught in rush-hour traffic in downtown Olaya might beg to differ, and it is clear that problems such as congestion will need to be tackled soon. However, the contractors and planners of Riyadh are aware that changes to the cityscape will not take place overnight.

'Town planning is a very difficult job to do, and even the simplest proposals can end up going through line after line of committees,' says Abdulrahman. 'But Riyadh is one of the few cities where planners are looking at where things should be in 50 years.'

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