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Volume 31, Number 4July/August 1980

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Riyadh on the Move

Written by Stephen D. Hayes
Photographed by S. M. Amin

The capital city of Saudi Arabia is moving. Most people's reaction to such a statement would be one of bewilderment and surprise. But if you were to say this to a Riyadh resident, you might get a look of momentary puzzlement and then a knowing smile. For Riyadh is moving - to the north-at a rate, roughly, of nearly two miles a year.

Riyadh is on the move in other ways too. Four years ago, the population of the city was about 400,000 people. Now, it is approaching one million. Motor vehicle registration has increased more than 10-fold in the last six years, and the demand for electric power is increasing by more than 50 percent a year - the highest growth rate in the world - reflecting an urban dynamism almost without precedent. Riyadh's massive modernization shares center stage with Jiddah's in a kingdom-wide urban development program for which the second Five Year Development Plan had earmarked $13 billion for municipal streets, sewers and drainage, along with a share of $8 billion allocated to housing construction, $3 billion for new hospitals and dispensaries, and further billions for schools, airports, power generation and other necessities.

As a result, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs budget has increased eightfold in the past three years and now ranks third among all ministry budgets. Eighty percent of that budget is devoted to capital projects: roads, sewers, drainage, water supply and so on, much of it concentrated in the larger urban centers. Growth of this kind, of course, is not an unmixed blessing. The price of growth, as many urban areas in the industrialized world have learned, is high: traffic congestion, air pollution, noise and - perhaps most distressing of all - the loss of old, charming and historic buildings, and irreversible changes in the character of the community.

In Riyadh, some officials have tried strenuously to lessen this impact, but the swift pace of growth has often frustrated their efforts. In most metropolitan areas of the world, people might reminisce about the way the city was 10 or 12 years ago. In Riyadh they reminisce about the way the city was 10 or 12 months ago. And the typical city growth pattern - expansion to the periphery, then decay of the center, and finally redevelopment of the inner city-has been compressed so drastically that expansion and revitalization are taking place simultaneously. A process that might take half a century elsewhere is being compressed into a decade on the Arabian Peninsula.

Change is less dramatic in the older part of Riyadh, but significant nevertheless. The traditional heart of the city is still the main mosque at the foot of Thumayri Street in Dira, but the mosque has just received a new stone facade; the central covered suq of Dira has been demolished and the handicraft, rug, fruit and vegetable suqs have been shifted into modern, open-air concrete stalls. Their previous site has become a parking lot for the ever-increasing automobile traffic, and there are now elevated walk-overs to facilitate pedestrian traffic.

The other center-city suq is the Batha Suq (sometimes called "the Kuwaiti suq"), a few blocks to the north of Dira. In spite of touches of modernization here and there, much of the traditional atmosphere has been preserved. One can still stroll down narrow alleys and back streets, watching people bargaining for everything from tomatoes to tea, from tape cassettes to gold bullion.

In many cases, efforts to preserve the landmarks of the past have been too late, and many handsome buildings have been bulldozed aside to make room for development. But there have been successes, too. One example is the al-Masmak Fort, the site of the dawn battle in January 1902 in which Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa'ud captured Riyadh (See Aramco World, January-February 1965). Last year, the city's mayor signed a contract for the complete restoration of the old fort.

In the Malazz quarter, growth has also enveloped Abu Makhruq, known to Westerners as "The Camel's Eye" - the hill from which 'Abd al-Aziz and his men launched their daring attack. Despite the growth, however, Abu Makhruq, which lay sere and crumbling a few years ago, has been preserved as the center of a city park, and will soon be ringed with bubbling fountains and stone walkways. But if some of the buildings in Riyadh's historic districts are being preserved, they are also being overshadowed- literally-by the new commercial high-rise buildings of modern design which are springing up in the southern section of the city. Most prominent of these is the new Riyadh Bank building, soaring more than 20 stories above the Dira suq area and scheduled for completion this year.

This juxtaposition of the new architecture and old is rapidly becoming the theme, rather than the odd exception, in the center of the city. In this booming, bustling Kiyacth, in fact, it is increasingly difficult to decide what is new. During most of the 1970's, for instance, the high, vertically striped blue and white water tower of Wazir Street served as the unofficial symbol of "new" Riyadh and the key landmark on the city's skyline. The disoriented visitor could always get his bearings by scanning the horizon for the water tower. But now, in 1980, the tower is nearly hidden amid the growing cluster of even newer, larger and more imposing edifices; it is now actually part of "the old," relative to the growth of the past two or three years.

Similarly, when the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) moved its offices from Jiddah to Riyadh in 1978, its new, very modern twin-building headquarters towered stark and alone above the surrounding structures. Twelve months later, the gleaming white offices were comfortably nestled in what some call an "edifice complex" - a cluster of buildings of comparable size and status on Shari' al-Matar (Airport Road). In addition to SAMA, virtually every other government ministry is now constructing - or has recently completed - a new headquarters building.

But the truly fundamental changes in the city are taking place even farther north. In 1975, the Sulaimaniya residential section, just west of the existing Riyadh International Airport, was literally at the edge of town. Last autumn, one could drive eight miles beyond Sulaimaniya - along a road which did not exist in 1975 - and still find construction. This is the "new Riyadh," rippling outward in waves of growth and soon to have its own shopping areas and commercial centers.

Looking at a map of Riyadh, one can see these and other growth areas of the city arching northeast and northwest beyond and around the present airport. A large valley, Wadi Hanifa, to the southwest of the old part of the city, inhibits expansion in that direction, but there are also several other factors pulling urban growth out to the northeast and northwest. To the northwest, along the road to the town of al-Diriya, ancestral home of the House of Sa'ud, the new campus of the University of Riyadh is currently under construction. When completed, it will not only be a showcase in the Middle East but, with a campus covering almost 250 acres, will be of immense extent as well.

Also to the northwest, very near the new university along the al-Diriya road, will be Riyadh's new diplomatic quarter. Presently, Riyadh is the only capital in the world that has no foreign embassies; they are all located in Jiddah on the Red Sea. But that will change in the 1980's with the gradual relocation of the diplomatic missions to Riyadh. Work on the infrastructure of the new section has already begun, and by the end of the century this quarter of Riyadh alone will have a population of 25,000. Thus, the twin attractions of the new university campus and the diplomatic quarter - not to mention King Faisal Specialist Hospital (See Aramco World, July-August 1979), a planned sports complex and the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs - are spurring the expansion of the city to the northwest.

Expansion to the northeast has been almost as great. The magnet pulling the city's growth in this direction is the new Riyadh International Airport, now under construction and destined to be among the most modern in the world. The arrangement will be somewhat similar to that in Washington, D.C., where National Airport is the city's domestic terminal while more distant Dulles Airport serves in an international capacity. The existing Riyadh Airport, only completed in 1976, will become the "little airport close to town," and residential neighborhoods like Sulaimaniya, Ulayah and al-Rawdah - only a few years ago "out by the airport," literally at the edge of the desert - will probably come to be described as being in-town, near the "old" airport. The main east-west artery from Riyadh to the Eastern Province, usually known as the Khurais Road, serves as the backbone of growth in the northeast. In addition to the new airport, government ministries, modern hotels and large residential sections are being built in this quadrant.

The explosive expansion of Riyadh's suburbs is taking place in leapfrog fashion, with buildings originally constructed seemingly in the middle of nowhere surrounded only a few months later by other construction. A more adventurous enterprise will then leapfrog out beyond that cluster to form another beachhead for further development. The Khurais Marriott, for example, one of the newest of the city's big hotels, located in the northeast development arc, stood strangely alone at first and seemed to be out of place in the harsh desert landscape off the Khurais Road. But within months it was surrounded by a growing matrix of residential and commercial development, and today is barely visible.

The day-to-day effects of such feverish growth have, of course, been difficult for residents. The city has become increasingly dusty from construction and construction traffic, causing both esthetic and physical discomfort. In a process familiar to American city-dwellers, newly completed streets are frequently "under construction" again and again as other agencies begin to install more sewage lines, power cables and telephone lines. Traffic routes are constantly being changed, so that even those who know the city occasionally become disoriented.

By 1980, nevertheless, there was some evidence that Riyadh's officials were beginning to solve some of these problems. In the 1970's, for example, a soaring population caused a dramatic rise in housing costs, but now residential construction is catching up with demand; in 1978, for the first time in a decade, housing costs actually declined. And with regard to hotels - once scarce -Riyadh now has an Inter-Continental Hotel, a Sheraton, two Marriotts, and a Hyatt under construction. The new hotels, almost without exception, are being established in the northern sections of the city. Riyadh's traffic, often snarled, tangled and difficult, is improving too. The city now sports a fleet of shiny new red and white German-built public buses, which will help alleviate traffic congestion. In addition, numerous overpasses now dot the cityscape; others - all preassembled - are going up periodically. The intersection of Khurais and Airport roads, for example, was once one of the most congested in the city. It now has a "flyover" which was erected during the summer of 1978 - in four weeks.

In this and other ways, Riyadh's traffic patterns are being modified and redesigned. Only five years ago, Batha Street was the main north-south artery through the center of town, and until a year ago it had a large open drainage canal down its center. Today, the drainage canal is completely underground, Batha is but one of several north-south thoroughfares, and traffic is moving smoothly over a downtown "flyover" near the Kuwaiti Suq. By the early 1980s, furthermore, Riyadh will have a ring road - a beltway system that will allow traffic to go around the city rather than through the center.

Riyadh, as a consequence, is a vibrant city, undulating with rapid growth - so rapid that many streets are still unnamed, and there are no street addresses. But the names and the numbers will eventually catch up to Riyadh's expanding reality. The key question is not when streets will be named, when the next overpass will go in, or what the state of the housing market is - though these are important questions in their own right. The key question - indeed, the key to the heart and soul of Riyadh - is whether it can become a modern, indeed ultramodern, city, and still retain the essence of Arabian life and culture.

It is a troubling question, no doubt. Despite the opportunities that construction of this magnitude offers - throughout the kingdom as well as in Riyadh - no specifically Arab-Islamic style of architecture has emerged. Instead, Riyadh and most other centers of growth have imported not only the building technology of the West but also its architectural themes.

Even in architecture, however, there are promising possibilities. In 1978, at a seminar on housing at the University of Petroleum and Minerals, a team of Saudi Arab students of architecture put forth designs which combined modern technology with traditional Arabian Gulf architecture (See Aramco World, January-February 1980). The chairman of the architecture department, moreover, argues that indigenous materials and traditional architecture - with such features as the lovely mashrabiya (See Aramco World, July-August 1974) - are far more suitable to the area than the imported themes.

To translate such ideas into actual buildings will be difficult, obviously, but not impossible. The development of Riyadh, a city on the move, has already shown how rapidly plans can become reality when those responsible decide that they will be.

Stephen D. Hayes is a program officer on the staff of the United States - Saudi Arabian Joint Economic Commision.

This article appeared on pages 26-33 of the July/August 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1980 images.