King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has set into motion a colossal program of city building in a bid to create new industrial centres to cater for the country’s young and growing population, channelling their energy into economic growth for the country. Under the direction of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), six new cities are currently in development totalling ‘four times the geographical area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to that of Singapore.’
While King Abdullah Economic City attracts considerable media attention for its plan to accommodate 2 million people by 2020, there are a number of other, no less ambitions schemes for future Saudi cities.
The Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Mousaed Economic City near Hail will boast the largest transportation and logistics hub in the Middle East. This project seeks to build upon the Hail region’s established agricultural sector, which accounts for 70% of local employment, by introducing supply chain centres and food processing services in order to tap the international market for pre-packaged foods.
Um Al-Qura Economic City near Makkah aims to foster business relations between the holy city and Jeddah. Although there are few specific details, it is expected to open new opportunities for the private sector, creating an additional 15,000 jobs.
The Knoweldge Economic City of Medina in northern Saudi Arabia aims to provide a platform for local entrepreneurs and to attract talent from around the world. Districts have been designated for medical research, bio-technology, IT, education, retail and business. It will also feature an interactive museum on the life and legacy of King Abdullah.
However this ambitious drive toward a sustainable post-oil economy is not without its concerns. Despite the thousands of jobs created, it is unclear who will fill them, as there is an almost complete absence of a Saudi working class. Expectations of government positions have ‘kept blue-collars off white Saudi robes,’ leading to a rise in domestic unemployment.
Also, the question remains of why build these cities new from scratch - as opposed to expanding the existing centres of Jeddah, Riyadh or Damman. It is claimed that the haphazard and overcrowded nature of these cities have not been able to cope with the rapidly increasing population of recent decades. For Khaled al-Faisal, governor of the Makkah region, the answer is simple: ‘we just need these new cities … there is no other way to do it.’