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type of New Town:
> scale of autonomy
As one of four “Economic Cities” under construction in Saudi Arabia, KAEC is part of a national strategy to diversify the kingdom’s oil-based economy. The new town will provide more than one million jobs, and for a young population facing high unemployment, it may be a way forward when the oil runs out.
The city’s history goes back to the year 1933, when two Americans geologists, Bert Miller and Krug Henry, looking for oil, arrived at the small port of Jubail in Saudi Arabia. Miller and Henry were on an urgent mission for finding oil and securing a contract with the Saudis that could help jump-start an American nation still struggling to recover from the Great Depression. With the assistance of unreliable maps and expert Bedouin guides, they set up an exploratory group setting out into the uncharted desert with a caravan of soldiers, automobiles, horses and camels.
The American explorers were guests of the king, largely because they had the capital and resources to get any potential oil to the world markets. Recently unified (1932, under Abdul-Aziz (‘Ibn Saud’)), Saudi Arabia was less technologically developed than the United States at that time, and therefore reliant on their expertise. The relationship was mutually beneficial, and both countries stood to gain billions from a successful partnership.
Today, one thousand kilometres across the peninsula from that historic landing, Saudi Arabia is building a city for two million people in the desert along the Red Sea coast. The city will be one of the kingdom’s four new Economic Cities: King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Prince Abdul Aziz bin Mousaed Economic City, Medina Knowledge Economic City and Jazan Economic City. These cities are intended to promote regional development in rural areas, prevent overcrowding in existing urban areas, create jobs for a generation of Saudis, enhance the country’s overall global competitiveness, and – critically – help diversify an economy that is now 80% reliant on the petroleum discovered almost 80 years ago.
In 2006, as part of the wave of development that followed King Abdullah’s coronation, the government-created Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA). The SAGIA announced the ’10x10’ scheme. The 10x10 was an economic vision intended to raise Saudi Arabia to one of the top ten world economies by the end of 2010.
As part of the 10x10 scheme, SAGIA initiated a series of four new Economic Cities scattered strategically across the country. A key part of the diversification plan is the creation of jobs in industries other than the petroleum sector. The Economic Cities are largely conceived as a direct way of combating the kingdom’s mounting unemployment. KAEC alone will create an estimated one million jobs. However, with an exceptionally young population, (the median age is 21) finding meaningful employment for frustrated Saudi citizens is critical as well as redistribution and growth.
The planned communities will support both urban and economic growth; they will offer new industries and diverse employment opportunities; and they will effectively redistribute wealth to less developed regions. As plans progress, the new towns have become the physical manifestation of the government’s commitment to development. The city of KAEC has been royally mandated to “become the single greatest enabler of social and economic growth for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. The ambition is emblematic of the continuing struggle between Saudi modernists (appealing for a return to ‘authentic’ Islam) and traditionalists (calling for increased political and social freedoms). Though marketed as “a New Age City, being built today for tomorrow’s generation”, the city’s dedication to traditional Saudi values is also real and prominent. The 550 mosques throughout the city and dedicated hajj terminal are testament to this sustained devotion. Pragmatically, of course, KAEC’s hajj terminal is also an economic gain for the new town. Capable of handling 300,000 pilgrims during the hajj season, the terminal will bring profits from transport, hotel occupancy and consumption.
KAEC, especially real estate in the city, has been affected by the global economic crisis. By mid-2010, “about fifteen percent of homebuyers defaulted on purchases and the company was forced to delay construction of sixteen towers as customers struggled to make payments”. To help face this crisis, Saudi Arabia made the revolutionary move of allowing foreigners to buy property inside KAEC. The city will be the very first place in the kingdom where other nationals can invest individually. After all, while the other Economic Cities may face delays or be forced to scale back, KAEC bears the king’s name. It cannot be allowed to fail.
The city is planned by a heavyweight group of designers and developers. Among others, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), an architecture and design firm with a long history of new town planning. SOM is lead designer for the city centre. Singapore-based Raglan Squire and Partners (RSP) leads the design team as principle planner, while Parsons International is responsible for the massive industrial development along the northern edge of the city (40 million m2). Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo (WATG) is responsible for more detailed planning of the resort and residential areas. Saudi-owned Emaar Properties, one of the largest real estate companies in the world, is the new city’s master developer.
The development is planned within four phases. The Phase 1, due for completion in 2011, includes a large industrial zone, the first framework for the port, Esmeralda residential community and Bay la Sun Business Park. The industrial area will focus on logistics and distribution centres as well as housing for construction workers. These first residential areas will include waterfront apartments and resort-style developments. The Phase 2 will extend the residential area along the coastline (connecting Esmeralda and Bay la Sun), and expand the industrial area. A new housing development at the southern edge of the city will be built, and the first half of the port will be completed. During the Phase 3, the industrial area will be further developed and more commercial and leisure facilities will fill in the urban fabric. By the Phase 4, scheduled for completion in 2025, the massive industrial terrain will be complete and the city will house two million inhabitants.
At a zoning scale, the oblong master plan is almost symmetrical along its north-south axis. The plan is bounded on its western edge by the King Abdul Aziz Road (Highway 5), with a thick border of industrial terrain insulating the city from the interior desert landscape. Industry and logistics take up more than a third of the total land area of KAEC (57 million m2) while residential areas make up a bit less than one third (42 million m2). The high concentration of industry, research, institutional and office spaces reinforces the SAGIA commitment to providing ample employment, and eliminates the risk of becoming a bedroom community. In this aspect, KAEC’s programmatic proportions are relatively unusual for a new town and should ensure a higher degree of autonomy.
This intentional focus on employment is due in large part to the Arabian Peninsula’s need to diversify an oil-based economy. As a Free Economic Zone (FEZ), King Abdullah Economic City represents a large part of this strategy. In addition to investment opportunities in the petrochemical sector, KAEC will support steel, glass, ceramic and plastic industries. In a sustained effort to further diversity both the local and national economies, KAEC will also offer investments in knowledge-based industries, including health and education. According to SAGIA’s website, “doing business in KAEC is given a special impetus with the business friendly regulations instituted by Saudi Arabian government investment authority (SAGIA). This includes 100% foreign ownership, minimal corporate tax, no capital requirement or restrictions on repatriation and so on”.
The seaport at the far northern end of the city will include a bulk solid cargo terminal as well as a container terminal. The seaport will be surrounded by industrial terrain including logistics, plastics, incubators and an aluminium smelting plant. The heavy industry area then transitions through to an R&D and institutional area, which acts as a buffer between the factories and the central business district (CBD) island. Mirroring the educational districts on the southern side of the CBD will be a ‘souk’ area with modern malls and traditional-style market areas, as well as a corniche running along the natural harbour. Across the water, another large residential area will be situated just behind the separate port devoted to hajj pilgrims.
Because of its proximity to Mecca and Medina, the new international airport will also have terminals dedicated solely to hajj pilgrims. These terminals, as well as the dedicated hajj seaport, will be adjacent to facilities specifically designed for the pilgrims, including hotels and hospitals. KAEC’s close relationship with the pilgrimage sites is evident in the master plan. The main axes of the city are deliberately oriented towards Mecca and Medina, with local mosques organized along the same lines. In some ways, KAEC will become a very important gateway for foreign hajj pilgrims. Entering the new city will be their first step on Saudi soil, and the experience is designed to make a lasting impression.
Accordingly, the plan for downtown KAEC by SOM is straightforward, but striking. The almond-shaped Central Business District (CBD) sits precisely in the centre of the city, encircled by a large canal, and ringed across the water by a six-lane road. The waterway physically divides the business district island from the surrounding residential and commercial areas. The northern tip is occupied by a colossal stadium, which then gives way to a fairly dense urban fabric. An axial green space cuts the island in half, beginning at the stadium and terminating at an enormous mosque. The axis is rendered as a 100-meter-wide space paved in light stone and dotted with water sculptures and fountains. Three rows of palm trees line each side of the water, presumably to provide shade from the scorching sun.
The CBD is divided into mono-functional office, financial and commercial districts, resort areas, and government facilities.
The urban plan is delineated with waterways that “divide the city centre into four major districts, each of them in possession of high-value waterfront properties that will promote trade and tourism. Tall buildings rising 60 to 100 stories will define the skyline and help to support the 300,000 new jobs that the city centre is expected to create. The CBD will eventually boast 3.8 million m2 of office, commercial and hotel space.
Plans for the ‘green’ centre include a central park with a zoo and botanical gardens. Public open spaces throughout the city will house schools, mosques, and markets. To support this dense, sustainable, and economically viable network, the city’s transit system will integrate foot traffic, cooling canals, a hierarchy of roadways, and public transportation.
While the CBD occupies the centre of the city and the industrial terrain runs along the western edge, KAEC’s eastern coastline on the Red Sea gives residents a panoramic sunrise every morning. The beach area will be dedicated to resort development, capitalizing on the eternal appeal of white sand and clear water. Just behind the resorts, a wide swath of residential neighbourhoods runs between the leisure and business districts.
In the traditional, vernacular neighbourhood unit, some degree of local autonomy, social homogeneity, and proximity to religious and public buildings all play important roles. These values resurface in King Abdullah Economic City, although the built form has been reinterpreted to accommodate changing lifestyles. According to the city’s website, “each city district is designed to be a complete social unit with homes, schools, medical facilities, offices, shopping and entertainment all integrated into one community”.
Bay la Sun, Esmeralda and Hawadi Village are three housing communities of the Phase 1. At Bay la Sun, the elegantly designed luxury apartments come in different sizes and are set amidst placid water canals. Bay La Sun will also offer residents a host of amenities including leisure, retail outlets, schools, mosques, medical centres and community areas.
Hawadi Village is targeted towards the middle class. According to Mr. Fahd Al-Rasheed, Chief Executive Officer of Emaar E.C., Hawadi is designed to be the home of professionals; engineers, doctors, teachers, and specialists in all fields – along with their families, who will work in the City or in neighbouring areas. It is being developed with all their needs and aspirations in mind – including affordability. With Hawadi Village, King Abdullah Economic City proves that it does not only target high-income professionals. Each neighbourhood in Hawadi surrounds a mosque, recreation centre and small retail shops, which turn into a meeting and socializing hub for the neighbours. A walking distance of almost every daily need helps build the sense of belonging to a neighbourhood and a community.
Most of the projects have been completed. Besides universities, factories, hotels, resorts, scientific and research complex, the Phase 1 were completed by the end of 2011. By early 2013, the seaport has started to welcome the first shipping lines. In the same year, all the basic and secondary infrastructure works of the first phase of the Al-Talah Gardens District have been completed and the ‘Golf’ district land plots and villas at "Al-Murooj" coastal community have been launched.
The city, of course, comes under criticism. Not everyone is pleased with KAEC’s lush extravagance and the multi-billion-dollar investment. In 2007, the Governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, (SAGIA) Amr Al-Dabbagh, defended the expenditure by reminding the public of the Economic Cities’ combined purpose. According to his words the impact of these [four] economic cities by 2020 is $150 billion in contribution to GDP growth, 1.3 million jobs to be created, and to accommodate 4.8 million of the total population.
KAEC, the city of Islamic Saudi Arabia, is literally opened to the rest of the world. But question remains - how will this new town combine an incoming expat population with the conservative teachings of Wahhabi (Sunni) Islam? How it is going to deal with the ‘liberal’ West, and for example its traditional beach use?