Following the completion of the $2.6bn King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust) in 2009, the kingdom’s attention has switched to another, even more ambitious higher education scheme: The Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Girls.

The project involves the construction of 22 new colleges, a 700-bed hospital, a central library … and a monorail

Despite being a relatively new construction project in Saudi Arabia, the university’s origins date back more than 40 years. The extensive facilities being built by the kingdom’s largest contractors will add to what was Riyadh University for Girls.

Established in 1970, the women-only colleges comprising Riyadh University have expanded over the past four decades, beginning as a teacher training centre, to include nursing, pharmaceutical studies, languages, physical therapy, economics, and art and design.

Despite the initiative, women are still under-represented in the workplace in Saudi Arabia. Currently, women comprise less than 20 per cent of the labour force.

In numbers

40,000: Planned capacity of the Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Girls

2012: The final completion date for construction of the university

25,000: The number of workers expected to be working on the project by late summer 2010

Source: MEED

Workforce drive

In 2008, Riyadh announced plans to develop the facility to support King Abdullah’s drive to increase the number of women in the kingdom’s workforce. In November the same year, the king laid the foundation stone to mark the launch of a SR45bn ($12bn) megaproject to upgrade and expand the university, increasing its capacity to 40,000 students, from 26,000. At the same time, the university was renamed as Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Girls, after the sister of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

A team [is visiting] universities and academic bodies in the Netherlands [to sign] cooperation agreements

Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Muhawas, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Girls

The project involves the construction of 22 new colleges, a 700-bed hospital, a central library, conference centres, laboratories, administration buildings, accommodation blocks, and a monorail system to link the 8 million-square-metre development.

The Ministry of Finance, which has more than $19bn of higher education construction projects under way, is managing the scheme. The project has been tendered in four major packages, each designed by Beirut’s Dar al-Handasah (Shair & Partners). After extensive negotiations, the first three contracts were awarded in January 2009, with a final completion date set for the end of 2012. Package three, which covers the infrastructure works, began on site immediately. This contract, awarded to the local El-Seif Engineering & Contracting, includes 5.5 million cubic metres of earthworks, 6 kilometres of utility tunnels, sewage, water and power supplies, as well as 924,000 sq m of paving, roads, bridges and landscaping throughout the site. El-Seif originally placed its bid for the contract at SR11bn, but revised this to SR8bn amid pressure from the Ministry of Finance in December 2008 to lower the bid in response to a fall in construction material prices. 

The same pressure was applied to the first two contracts. Package one is led by local construction giant Saudi Oger, which was awarded a SR12.5bn contract after being asked to resubmit its original SR17bn bid. Its contract in involves the construction of nine colleges, including medicine, dentistry, pharmaceuticals, nursing, arts and humanities departments.

Package two was awarded to local Saudi Binladin Group for SR10bn. Originally bid at SR15bn, the contract involves construction of the 700-bed teaching hospital, administrative buildings, conference centres, mosques and 400 villas for married students. Dubai’s Arabtec was awarded a sub-contract for 46 low-rise faculty buildings within the same package.

Construction of the facilities is accelerating and sources close to the project have told MEED that the onsite labour force is set to increase from the current number of 17,000 workers to 25,000 by late summer.

The fourth SR1.5bn package, for the 11km monorail and 17 stations, was awarded to a consortium of Saudi Binladin, with Italy’s Ansaldo STS and Ansaldo Breda in August 2009. The two Italian firms are part of the Finmeccanica Group. Ansaldo STS will install the electro-mechanical systems, while Ansaldo Breda will supply the trains.

Sustainable construction

Consultants on the project tell MEED that careful consideration has been given to the design of the campus with sustainability and speed of construction being key factors. As a result, prefabricated elements are central to the project with Premco, a subsidiary of local construction firm CPC, supplying 62,000 cubic metres of pre-cast concrete to the scheme. Designers have also been asked to ensure maintenance and operational requirements for the state-of-the-art facilities are kept to a minimum.

The student population in Saudi Arabia (millions)
1970 412,000 135,000
1975 673,000 311,000
1980 951,000 511,000
1985 1,273,000 876,000
1990 1,624,000 1,310,000
1995 2,022,000 1,912,000
2000 2,405,000 2,369,000
2001 2,595,452 2,420,198
2008 2,522,658 2,496,349
Source: Ministry of Education    

As with other regional education projects, the design of the campus and facilities are underpinned by sustainable technologies. For example, air-conditioning systems will use energy-efficient chillers for cooling, potentially saving 2,100 gallons of water a minute.

Other measures include 40,000 sq m of solar panelling, a greywater recycling plant with a capacity of 8,000 cubic metres a day and passive design techniques, such as orientating buildings to ensure heat absorption from sunlight is minimised. Alongside the extensive new facilities, staff at the university are researching a range of cooperation agreements with international institutions, and are also exploring closer coordination with other domestic institutions.

“The university’s rector, Princess Al-Johara bint Fahd al-Saud has assigned a working team to visit universities and academic bodies in the Netherlands for signing cooperation agreements with them,” says the university’s vice-rector Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Muhawas.

By providing state-of-the-art facilities and a wider syllabus for female students, Riyadh hopes to increase the contribution the female population makes to the economy and prevent some of the migration overseas for higher education. Competition to secure students is also increasing domestically as the opening up of the education sector has led to the creation of modern private universities and the co-educational graduate research university Kaust. This has resulted in the extensive upgrade of the kingdom’s 26 existing state-run institutions.

According to the Ministry of Education, 50 per cent of the kingdom’s students are female, meaning there should be no shortage of demand for places at the new universities. But building the new facilities is only the first step. The major challenge ahead for Riyadh and the new Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for Girls is to ensure that more female graduates enter the workforce once their educational journey is complete.

A team [is visiting] universities and academic bodies in the Netherlands [to sign] cooperation agreements

Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Muhawas, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Girls