Saudi 'cities' under pressure to deliver
By By Andrew Hammond, August 20, 2008
An hour’s drive north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, 8,000 workers toil under the relentless summer sun building what Saudi Arabia hopes will be the key to its social and economic future.
If all goes to plan, the King Abdullah Economic City and three sister developments in Hail, Jizan and Madinah will by at least 2020 be vibrant communities in a country with high unemployment and an over-reliance on oil.
Allowing women to drive cars and possibly permitting cinema houses, they may also add to the few bubbles of freedom in Saudi Arabia -- where suffocating gender restrictions have been eased in recent years, to the ire of many religious conservatives.
But while funds are plentiful -- the government says the plan has attracted $35 billion of investment from global players -- many forces including the religious establishment and tensions in nearby Iran and Iraq could hinder the process.
In the ’economic cities’, many expect the religious clerics to be kept at a distance from social life, the workplace and education.
’Society has changed fundamentally and the measure of it is that the official fatwa (religious edict) of old no longer has the hold it had,’ said reformist cleric Abdelaziz al-Gasim.
He said social and political taboos had been broken, citing women revealing their faces in some public places and popular participation in 2005 municipal elections, diluting the idea maintained by the clerics of absolute obedience to the ruler.
’A girl or young man who hears a fatwa doesn’t just obey, he goes to Google and hears other opinions and discusses,’ he said.
Although there is not much to see so far, the King Abdullah City will be the jewel in the ’economic cities’’ crown.
A grand gate bearing the king’s image and words ’the vision of our leader has embodied our dreams’ stands virtually alone in an expanse of desert covering over 388 square km (150 square miles).
But after the gate a long road with banners on lamp posts unveils the magnitude of the ambition -- a hypermodern, eco-friendly mix of port and industrial zone, financial centre, residential quarters, luxury resort and schools and colleges.
An architect’s model in a showroom by the sea shows a stunning mix of skyscrapers, beach and resort, with a ’media city’ thrown in for good measure where publicity posters suggest Britain’s BBC for one will maintain offices.
Developed by Emaar Economic City, a subsidiary of Dubai’s Emaar Properties, it was the first of the four when launched in 2006.
’Do you know the city will be larger than Washington?’ said public relations manager Rayyan Al-Dahlawia on a site tour. Two million people will work and play inside the protected zone.
The aims of the cities go beyond job creation to urban renewal, modern education and easing the grip of the religious establishment on a society that has doubled to include 17 million Saudis of a total of 25 million in 18 years.
’Saudi Arabia today doesn’t offer the kind of services that are required,’ said Fahd al-Rasheed, the chief executive officer of Emaar Economic City. ’There is a lack of infrastructure and basic urban aesthetic beauty is also missing.
’We have 60 percent of our population under 30 and these people need places to live. So we are going to create the educational opportunities for them to come, study and work.’
The plans are that by 2010 up to 10,000 housing units will have been completed in King Abdullah City with around 500 inhabited, and 10 percent of the city finished.
’We’re all looking forward to it,’ said Samar Fatany, a columnist and radio presenter in nearby Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s most lib