“Saudi Arabia is a confusing picture,” says Ian Mulcahey, a principal in the practice area for masterplanning at London-based architect Gensler. The firm is bidding for several projects in the kingdom. “On the one hand, there seems to be a lot going on, but on the other, there is not a lot actually happening,” he says.

Saudi Arabia invested more than $725bn in infrastructure projects between 1970 and 2006. MEED Projects estimates that $170bn worth of projects are currently planned in the kingdom, but only $16.6bn worth are under way.

“When you look at all the fundamentals every-thing should be extremely positive,” says Mulcahey. “In Riyadh, there are significant plans for new developments and they are scouring the world for consultants. But when you visit, there are not a lot of cranes on the skyline.”
Mulcahey claims there is a lot of talk but progress is frustratingly slow, an issue that he says is causing the country to fall behind on delivering its infrastructure projects.

“The decision-making is so erratic that a lot of potential investment is being poured into Dubai and Abu Dhabi rather than into Saudi Arabia,” he says. “There is huge recognition that the country has slipped behind and wants to catch up.”

Positive developments

On the positive side, some significant infrastructure projects are imminent, including new roads and a mass transport system. “The feeling is that the country is on the verge of a great development boom,” says Mulcahey.

Local architects such as Saudi Consulting Services (SaudConsult) agree that the year ahead will be busy. “2008 is our going to be our biggest year ever,” says business development manager Saif Ibrahim al-Turkmani. “In the next year, we might do more business than the previous three years combined.”

SaudConsult works with major global architectural firms, providing them with site selection, engineering design, materials, construction supervision and contract management. The company also works on international projects in countries such as Sudan, Yemen and Mauritius.

Al-Turkmani says that international firms, along with world-class local firms, are critical in realising the country’s plans for construction and real estate development. “The sorts of high-level projects we are working on now require internationally recognised architects who can design to world-class standards. The major Saudi developers are looking at projects now that will attract international tenants and, to do that, the design specifications of the buildings have to be of the standard that one would find in Europe or America.”

In some cases, the sale of land next to the site, a practice referred to as ‘flipping’, can help the developer recoup a major portion of its initial investment. Real estate developers say that using a successful international firm adds considerably more value to projects and gives international companies confidence in the standard of the building. This in turn pushes up land values.

“Land in the kingdom has very little inherent value,” explains Chris Johnson, managing principal for UK architectural practice Gensler. “Its value is determined by its proximity to something else. A keen developer can buy a large plot of land for next to nothing and sell off parcels around a completed project, and recoup a major portion of their cost.”

There is no shortage of these internationally recognised architects bidding for work in the kingdom. These include Rotterdam-based Gensler; the Dutch architect OMA, headed by Rem Koolhas, designer of Jeddah Airport; Shingeru Ban of Japan; Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima, which designed the National Museum in Riyadh; and Oslo-based Snohetta AS.

Key local players include Omrania & Associates (O&A), which counts most key government entities as clients and has projects all over the world, including the Kingdom Centre skyscraper in Riyadh, and Zuhair Fayez Partnership (ZFP), which is also active throughout the region.

Despite the reported slow progress, some schemes have been awarded. Over the past year, Copenhagen-based Henning Larsen Architects won the competition for the multi-billion-dollar King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) in Riyadh, which the government hopes will become the leading financial centre in the Middle East. It was conceived as part of an economic diversification programme and is north of the capital.

The new financial district will have 55,000 workplaces and a monorail, which will connect the various areas of the district. It will also include the stock exchange and the Capital Market Authority.

The same firm also recently won a commission from the Foreign Affairs Ministry for the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Riyadh and the Royal Danish Embassy, also in the capital. It claims that understanding the environment is key to winning work in the kingdom.

“I think we won the contest for the KAFD because we took the time to understand the Saudi Arabian environment,” says Louis Becker, design director at Henning Larsen. “We looked at the old Arab cities and the narrow-shaded streets and we knew what we had to do. We suggested a much denser environment for the financial district, with tall buildings that provide natural shade. We want to create an urban environment so people can walk around. Our design created an environment where you will never be exposed to direct sunlight.”

Al-Tukmani says this is a critical factor for international firms wishing to win work in the kingdom. “Architects have to understand our unique environment,” he explains. “Riyadh has grown so much it is like an American city. Large and wide boulevards are inhospitable to pedestrian traffic even in the cool months, but in the summer they are unbearable. An experienced architect will understand and design projects that work here, where shade is used to protect pedestrians.”

Becker claims the firm’s Nordic approach to design works well in the Saudi market. “We have quite a pragmatic approach to our work, which is why firms like ourselves, Snohetta and Rem Koolhas [OMA] are successful in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “We want the building to work in a holistic way. It should work for the cook in the basement and the Sheikh in the top-floor office. We listen and try to understand. It is very different from the American model that says what tastes good in Kentucky should taste good in Saudi Arabia.”

Another issue that has to be factored into all upcoming designs is security. Developers are open about the matter. “It is not seen as a short-term phenomenon,” says Gensler’s Johnson. “Whether it be the grade of glass, the way walls are positioned and strengthened, or the way pedestrian and street traffic is directed, security is one of the most closely scrutinised points of any architect’s design proposal in the kingdom.”

Secure buildings

Henning Larsen agrees that this issue is critical and formed an important part of its design for the King Abdullah Financial District. “First of all, we do not want to have a tank or a sniper’s nest sitting outside every important building,” explains Becker. “When we designed the KAFD, we went out of our way to build a secure environment.” He says all public spaces have been designed to minimise any blast impacts.

According to some architects, Saudia Arabia lags behind the UAE in terms of the pace of delivery. “A major portion of the work we are competing for in Saudi Arabia is led by private developers, although most of these individuals have deep connections,” says Johnson.
“The process is excruciatingly slow, compared to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, where the government leads in developments and decisions are made quickly.

Al-Turkmani agrees that the boundaries between public and private sector can be vague. “In terms of the mix between government-instigated and privately-instigated projects, the bulk of work remains in the private sector in Saudi Arabia, but in reality nobody is far from the public sector in this country,” he says. “The major developers all have close connections to the government.”

But there are clear differences when it comes to procurement of the construction supply chain, he adds. Government projects always insist that material is sourced locally, including everything from concrete to door handles. This can delay projects and reduce competition, pushing up costs. “In privately-instigated projects, the developers do not care if the materials come from Timbuktu, which helps to cut costs,” he says.

For international architects, these stipulations can be limiting factors and the time-consuming decision-making processes are in contrast to neighbouring UAE. But the slower time-scales are not always a bad thing, say some firms.
“The Saudis have a more normal pace than the UAE and hopefully that will result in fewer failures in a 20-year scale,” says Becker. “A lot of the projects in the UAE have been done very quickly and it is not inconceivable that some of those projects will fail [structurally or commercially] down the line.”

Although architects are quick to criticise the slow progress of the kingdom, all are excited about the raft of projects set to come on stream in the next five years. Anecdotal evidence suggests the growing raft of developments and increasing enthusiasm from clients for high-quality architecture has improved profit margins for architects.

“What that means is that the level of quality may be higher in the kingdom, while the eye-catching projects will be in the Emirates,” says Becker. “In 20 years, those flashy projects may look like aesthetic disasters.”

TABLE: Selected Saudi projects

Project name Value ($m) Client Architect/ designer Description Status
King Abdullah Financial District 7,800 Saudi Public Pension Agency (PPA) Gensler 1.6 million-square-metre district that will be home to the Tadawul Stock Exchange and the Capital Market Authority. At design stage; construction to begin in third quarter of 2009
Jeddah Landmark 533 Kinan International Real Estate Development Company Nikken Sekkei Offices, residences, a five-star hotel and retail outlets At design stage; construction to begin third quarter of 2008
Riyadh IT park 530 Saudi Public Pension Agency (PPA) Zuhair Fayez Partnership Consultants IT park, located next to King Saud University and King Abdulaziz Science & Technology City, covering an area of more than 500,000 square metres At design stage
Jeddah business village 400 Saudi Real Estate Development Company (Sredco) ERGA Art & Design Eight office buildings, medical clinics, a commercial area and a two-level car park with retail outlets and restaurants. At design stage; size of project was recently increased leading to additional design needs
Jeddah Riviera mall 300 Majid Al-Futtaim Shopping Malls na 100,000-square-metre shopping mall in Jeddah Final design complete; construction to begin in third quarter of 2008
King Abdullah International Gardens 200 King Abdullah International Gardens Committee Barton Willmore 160-hectare garden visitor attraction designed as a gift to King Abdullah to celebrate his accession to the throne Final design complete; construction to begin in third quarter of 2008
Jeddah headquarters 100 Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Bramberger Landmark tower to sit between the Mecca al-Mukkaramah Gate and King Abdulaziz Palace, At design stage; construction expected to begin in third quarter of 2008
KKU Abha campus, science college 100 King Khalid University Zuhair Fayez Partnership Consultants Science college buildings, part of the new Abha campus At design stage; construction to begin in third quarter of 2008
KKU Abha campus, campus administration building 100 King Khalid University Zuhair Fayez Partnership Consultants Administration building, part of the new Abha campus At design stage; construction to begin in third quarter of 2008
Riyadh Anoud Tower 50 Princess al-Anoud bint Abdulaziz al-Jalawi charity East Consulting Engineering Centre (ECEC) Second 22-storey Anoud tower in Riyadh Design work awaiting approval from municipality

KKU=King Khalid University

na=not available

Source: MEED