Vision of economic cities

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Just off a desert road about an hour’s drive from this port city, an enormous arched gate capped by three domes rises out of the sand like the set for a 1920s silent film fantasy. It is, instead, a fantasy of contemporary urban planning, the site of what one day will be King Abdullah Economic City, a 168-square-kilometre development at the edge of the Red Sea. With a projected population of 2 million, the city is a Middle Eastern version of the “special economic zones” that have flourished in places like China.

The city is one of four being laid out on empty desert around this country, all scheduled for completion by 2030. They follow on the heels of the country’s first coeducational university, which opened last year next to the King Abdullah site, and a financial district nearly the size of Lower Manhattan that is rising on the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh.

Architecturally they couldn’t be more dreary and conventional – bloated glass towers encircled by quaint town houses and suburban villas decorated in ersatz historical styles. Their gargantuan scale and tabula rasa approach conjure old-style Modernist planning efforts like the creation of Brasilia in the 1950s or the colossal Soviet urban experiments of the 1930s, but these are driven by anxiety over the future, not utopian idealism.

With more than 13 million Saudis – half the population – under 20, the 86-year-old Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, is trying to create more than a million new jobs and 4 million homes within 10 to 15 years. He and his royal clan envision an economy less dependent on oil, run by a new class of doctors, engineers and businessmen who can function in a global marketplace.

To accomplish this feat the Saudi government says it needs to crack the door open to some sort of Western-style modernity – or at least a softer version of the Islam practiced here, with its strictly enforced separation of the sexes, its severe restrictions on the public lives of women and the ever watchful eye of the religious police.

The idea is to create islands from which change would seep out, drop by drop, without antagonizing powerful conservative forces within the country.

If the plan works, at best it would transform Saudi Arabia into a technologically advanced society controlled by a slightly more tolerant religious autocracy. Or it could provoke militant violence and government crackdowns.

“What they are trying to do is very difficult,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who has written extensively on Saudi Arabia. “Someone telling you to go pray – that in-your-face religion – that’s not going to be permitted in these cities. It’s a more ecumenical Islam. But it’s a slippery slope. Once you start, you’ve basically opened up the door to a certain degree of diversity and tolerance.”


When I visited recently, the steel frames of the financial district’s first towers could be seen rising at the city’s northern edge, just beyond a ring road. According to the government, this will one day be the financial centre of the entire Middle East, and the design blends elements of Wall Street, La Defense in Paris, and Canary Wharf in London into a kind of generic financial theme park.

Jacob Kurek, a partner at Henning Larsen, architects of the master plan, showed me apartment layouts no different from those in a standard residential high rise in New York or London. Many have floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing people to stare directly into them.

Meanwhile the seven mosques that were part of the original master plan have been reduced by more than half, and most of the daily worship will take place in public prayer rooms tucked into buildings.


King Abdullah Economic City – KAEC (pronounced “cake”), as the Saudi government calls it – is envisioned as another island of relative liberalism within Saudi Arabia. For now, just beyond the gate, a roadway flanked by shrubs, palm trees and the occasional billboard of King Abdullah extends through kilometres of empty desert. At its far end the first stages of development rise: some tinted glass corporate office buildings, a long row of town houses and a pedestrian boardwalk overlooking the turquoise waters of the Red Sea.

According to the agency in charge of developing the economic cities, this cluster of buildings will blossom into a walled city with 400,000 apartments, town houses and villas; a central business district; an industrial zone; a 101-hectare university campus; and one of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced ports.

“The whole objective is job creation,” said Amr al-Dabbagh, the agency’s governor. “The biggest oil refinery produces at most 1,500 jobs. We will produce a million.”

Despite the occasional Islamic-style embellishments – a villa with an arched entryway, a trellised porch – the developments bring to mind the camps built here by Aramco, the American oil conglomerate, for its executives and workers in the 1950s and ‘60s. Like this new city those camps were sealed enclaves, re-creations of American-style subdivisions complete with front lawns, backyard barbecues and baseball diamonds. And they followed what were known as “Aramco rules”: women were allowed to walk around unveiled, drive cars and mingle with men. But KAEC is Aramco with a twist. Conceived on a larger scale, economically and socially more diverse, it aims to draw a range of Western corporations and their employees, as well as their expertise, to create a social mixing chamber. The core of the city will be a business district much like the one on the outskirts of Riyadh. Residential areas will be interlaced with the kind of open public spaces – parks, plazas and the waterfront promenades – that are generic in large Western-style developments but almost impossible to find in Saudi Arabia. Artists’ renderings of the project show couples happily strolling around the city dressed in an ambiguous mix of Islamic and Western styles. A video of the future university has women, their heads covered but otherwise in Western-looking dress, mingling with men on campus. To encourage more foreign companies and their employees to come here, the government will allow foreign ownership for the first time. And officials say the city will have a streamlined bureaucracy, so that unlike in other Saudi cities, where delays can make even the simplest transactions stretch out for days, action on visas or customs documents will take just an hour.

Ahmed Osilan, al-Dabbagh’s chief of staff, explained the difference between King Abdullah Economic City and the old Aramco camps this way: It is “not an Aramco town – it will have a mix of foreigners and nationals – but Aramco rules.” He added, “The coeducation, the mixing – they’re tools for bringing about various changes the king wants.”

Eventually KAEC is supposed to be joined by three other cities: Knowledge Economic City on the outskirts of Medina, the burial place of Muhammad and one of the Arab world’s holiest cities; Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, 724 kilometres north of Riyadh, which will focus on agribusiness; and Jazan Economic City, intended to provide industrial jobs to Saudis living near the border of Yemen, a stronghold of al-Qaida that has become one of the most volatile areas in the Middle East.

“The economic cities are unique,” Osilan said, explaining the government’s thinking. “They are contained developments. Should they succeed they will be contagious to the neighboring region. Should they fail it is still contained.”


If the government’s vision fails – if it cannot manage the forces of liberalism within its planned developments – it could set off more intense clashes with militant forces that could ripple across the Middle East and the West. A more likely outcome is that, as resistance from the country’s conservative religious establishment grows, the government will ratchet up its mechanisms of oppression.

But an even bigger danger, some say, may be that the government won’t move forward at all.

“You’re looking at decades,” Haykel said. “If these cities don’t work, and they can’t produce jobs and, say, the price of oil drops, you could have masses of people mobilizing against the government, and it could take the form of religious extremism. But in the long run if they don’t produce an economy that’s not dependent on oil, the country itself becomes inviable. I don’t know how they would be able to sustain life there. It’s an end-of-the-world scenario.”