Medina al-Munawwarah, or City of the Enlightened, is synonymous with culture and learning, and Saudi Arabia’s government is drawing on this legacy to launch Medina Knowledge Economic City (KEC), located 5 kilometres east of the Prophet Mohammed’s Mosque.

Unveiled in the summer of 2006, Medina KEC is the third of the six planned Saudi economic cities. The $8bn project aims to create 20,000 jobs in Medina province. Medina KEC’s core site covers 4.8 million square metres, most of it falling within the city areas restricted to Muslims. But the total built-up area is closer to 9 million sq m and will spread east into non-restricted areas at the end of King Abdulaziz road. Eventually, Medina KEC is expected to house 150,000 people.

The project is being developed under the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (Sagia) by a consortium comprising the local Quad International Real Estate Development Company, the King Abdullah Foundation, Savola Group, Taibah Investment & Real Estate and Project Management & Development Company. Phase one of the project, representing 40 per cent of all planned development, is expected to be built by 2010, with a second stage scheduled for completion in 2020. It is expected to generate SR10bn ($2.67bn) a year for the Saudi economy.

“It is too early yet to talk about the commitments of specific investors,” says Tahir Bawazir, chief executive officer of Medina KEC. “It is only a month since we finalised the masterplan with Sagia.”

Moving forwards

Nevertheless, there are already signs that the project is making progress. In March, a new chief operating officer joined the Medina KEC team. Syed Mohamed Syed Ibrahim came to Saudi Arabia from TH Properties in Malaysia.

King Abdullah has also ordered local funds to be channelled into the Mecca-Jeddah-Medina railway project. The SR20bn high-speed electric railway will carry 10 million pilgrims a year between the two holy cities, on trains travelling at speeds of more than 300km an hour.

Medina, Saudi Arabia’s fourth-largest city, has just over one million inhabitants. While the five other Saudi economic cities aim to create jobs and industries outside the main urban centres, Medina KEC’s remit is to turn Islam’s second-holiest city into a beacon of excellence for the entire Muslim world.

At its heart is the Taiba Complex, a 360,000-sq m industrial park targeting e-government, hi-tech industries, research and development, distance learning and development of high-tech Arabic-language products. Its ‘business incubators’ will support male and female Saudi entrepreneurs, and the development will comprise new buildings, fitted with cutting-edge technology.

The Taiba – from Taiba al-Tayebah, ‘The Cradle of Islam’ – complex complements Sagia’s drive to attract international and Arab universities, colleges and research bodies to Medina, intended to make the city a magnet for specialists in information technology, science and software development.

Training locals

In the spring of 2007, Sagia and networking infrastructure specialists Cisco Systems signed a memorandum of understanding that involves Cisco investing SR1bn ($267m) in Saudi Arabia. In Medina, Cisco will provide network architecture, creating a secure internet protocol (IP) network linking all buildings in KEC, and creating digitally connected real estate.

Cisco will also launch a networking academy in Medina to train 100 male and 100 female students on its systems as part of a drive to train 5,600 Saudi students. It is also creating Cisco Netversity, whose graduates will help to build Medina’s knowledge-based industries.

“Innovation has always come out of Medina, and we are taking demand-driven innovation into new products,” says Caspar Herzberg, strategy and operations director for Cisco Saudi Arabia. “There is a surge of demand taking place in Saudi Arabia, and we need to be closer to that demand.”

Herzberg dismisses the view expressed
by some observers that Saudi Arabia may be overly ambitious in its plans to build six economic cities, then finding investors to participate in the schemes. Unlike other regional markets, Herzberg says, Saudi Arabia is responding to proven demand for real estate, and Medina is a prime location.

Mohammed Shah, chief technology officer at Medina KEC, says the city will take Saudi Arabia into the digital age and beyond. “It will be an amazing task to build a city from scratch that is driven by knowledge and innovation,” he says. “We are building the latest ICT [information and communications technology] infrastructure, which will see us through the next couple of decades. It is connectable to various media such as voice, video and data.

“We are looking at this vertically – at a city able to offer connectivity at all times that goes beyond the Blackberry concept.”

Shah and his colleagues hope to turn Medina into a world-class centre of excellence in technology and communications within two decades. “KEC will be a vibrant city of knowledge, home to people sharing the most modern innovations and utilising technology to share information and learning across the globe,” he says.

Cisco and KEC aim to future-proof the project as far as possible, using fibre-optic cable technology and building infinite bandwidth technology into the project from the outset. The partners are confident that the system has the capacity to move huge volumes of data, by making the basic platforms as robust and open as possible, to adapt to whatever new technologies evolve in future.

The issue that concerns the sceptics, of course, is how open and unfettered internet access in Saudi Arabia can be. This issue is especially sensitive in Medina.

KEC says that technology will have to respect the confines of local legal restrictions and cultural traditions.

Other global IT companies signed up to Medina KEC include Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and CompTIA, the certification body. In February, Microsoft announced it would launch a Microsoft IT academy in Medina by 2013, in partnership with KEC, to train young Saudis to use basic technology.

Software giant Oracle signed an agreement in November to launch an Oracle Training Academy in Medina, to address the shortage of skilled IT engineers in the kingdom.

Beyond IT, the new industries planned for Medina include the 85,000-sq m Centre for Medical Sciences & Biotechnology. This will offer a range of research programmes, from genetic engineering to improve the yield of Medina’s traditional date palms, to medical services and rehabilitation.

Religious centre

Alongside the 21st century technology, the 205,000-sq m Islamic Civilisation Studies Centre aims to consolidate Medina’s status as a centre for religious knowledge. It will use technology to promote Islamic education, including lectures delivered by video conference or webcast in the main languages of the Muslim world.

There are also plans for a central business district – home to some of the tallest buildings in what is, essentially, a low-rise project – with conference and exhibition halls and office space for 10,000 people.

Medina KEC hopes to become an offbeat tourism destination, based around Seera Land, an interactive museum based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Sagia sees the city’s rich Muslim heritage as a modern-day magnet for religious tourism. Inbound Hajj and Umrah travel is expected to drive growth of 240 per cent in visitor numbers, attracting 34 million visitors a year by 2025. There are plans for hotel space to accommodate up to 30,000 visitors a year and for a retail complex, modelled on an Islamic-era souq, with 1,200 shops.

Airport revamp

Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz airport is undergoing a $106m revamp to cope with projected visitor growth. Reclassified as an international airport last year, it is able to handle up to 3.5 million passengers a year. KEC says the expansion programme will expand capacity to 12 million passengers a year, relieving pressure on Jeddah International Airport.

Early studies are under way to build a mass transit system to carry pilgrims and passengers between the airport and the new and old cities.

Last year, Siraj Capital and Project Management & Development Company (PMDC) signed a memorandum of understanding to develop Medina KEC’s $100m hospitality sector. The deal covers the exhibitions and convention centre, hotels and residential areas.

The conglomerate and food manufacturer Savola Group, which also manages 14 Saudi shopping malls, has also signed a memo-randum of understanding covering the first phase of retail development at Medina KEC, a deal covering more than 100,000 sq m and valued at $133m.

There are plans for a hypermarket, more than 300 shops and parking space for 4,000 cars. There are also plans for a second phase that will increase Medina KEC’s retail space to 300,000 sq m.

Toronto-based architect HOK designed the master plan for Medina KEC, submitted to Sagia in December. HOK has extensive Gulf experience, including Dubai Marina and Riyadh’s King Saud University. The new city will draw from classical Islamic architecture to create a distinctive and harmonious ‘look’.

“We have respected the fact that Medina is a unique city with a unique history,” says Robert Marshall, senior vice-president, HOK Planning Group. “Saudis like to retire to Medina, and others will want to visit for religious reasons. That is why traditional architecture has been central to the plan.

“That has translated into elements such as the enclosed souq, rather than just another mall, the low-rise buildings and the emphasis on parks and walkways. We have consciously avoided straight, modernised grids. There will be an internal transit loop as well, which means visitors will not need to have a car to enjoy the city.”

Low-rise building

The tallest buildings – including a 48-storey residential tower and a 38-storey commercial tower – are concentrated around a central plaza. HOK says high-density buildings along King Abdulaziz road will be restricted to 40 metres (12 storeys), and other neighbourhoods limited to three storeys. Initial ground-breaking took place in mid-March.

“Medina will have wide appeal,” says Bawazir. “The new residences will attract the upper-middle classes, many from outside the city. We will attract retired people and people working in the knowledge industries. We also want to attract outside talent – scientists and experts who will make Medina competitive.”

Sagia and Medina KEC are looking at the legal structures they will need to allow non-Gulf nationals to buy property or to take long-term property leases. If all goes to plan, prospective buyers will be invited to view plots and look at developments early next year.

Meanwhile, an Investment Co-ordination Centre (ICC) has been launched to smooth the path for prospective investors. It is charged with creating packages for investors, putting together packages of land, buildings, financial support and IT packages, and helping businesses to choose and design a site, and determine the project’s feasibility.

In recent years, Medina’s population has expand by 3 per cent annually, says Bawazir. People are being sucked into the city from surrounding villages in search of jobs and homes. As elsewhere in the kingdom, there is a shortage of housing, and of nationals with employable skills.“By 2028, Medina will be a vibrant city – a centre for advanced knowledge and education,” says Bawazir. “It will feed knowledge to all sectors of the economy. It will be a city of 2.5 million people, and still a very nice place to live. It will be a centre of medical, IT and communications knowledge for the whole Muslim world.”

Key facts

  • Taiba complex for technology and knowledge-based industries.

  • Central business district with conference and exhibition centre.

  • Residential areas with tower blocks, villas and hotels.

  • King Abdulaziz Mosque, with space for 10,000 worshippers.

  • Expansion of Medina International Airport.

  • Passenger railway and other transport improvements.

  • Medical studies complex.