Saudis find their public space

In a strictly regulated society, online activity is providing Riyadh’s population with hitherto unknown freedom to socialise

Two years ago I arrived at Riyadh International Airport for the first time, as a senior architect and urban designer. This was the gateway to one of the richest countries in the world. The airport is domed with arabesque decorative stone, a big pool between some trees, and long queues of immigrants hoping to get their share of the enormous prosperity the country is enjoying.

On the way from the airport you could see people from all over the world, but rarely any Saudis. The taxi driver told me that they are too smart to come out when it’s so hot. But that’s not the only reason. They do not need to get out. They are socialising, not outside their homes but inside them, on the web.

 

Restoration of the mud houses and palaces in Derayia.
Restoration of the mud houses and palaces in Derayia.

I reached my place, 35km away, after an hour of driving through solid traffic; I had arrived on National Day. It was a happy festival with youngsters dancing on the jam-packed road inside their four wheel drives. Little did I know this was the only day of the year they were allowed this sort of freedom. The limits are all too real. Very soon I discovered that most of my colleagues were sitting there, as Mark Twain would say, ‘like an envelope without any address on it’. I might have ended up the same if my wife had not contacted a diplomat in Riyadh, asking him to look after me. I subsequently entered the diplomatic club where social life had a tint of western life. Movies, concerts, plays and pub entertainment – all totally absent in Riyadh – kept me socially alive throughout the year.

The only areas where you encounter activity are the mosques for the short period of prayer time, or the shopping malls, of which there are a plethora

The city seems more a representation of a utopia than a real one. Many buildings are unoccupied, and the only areas where you encounter activity are the mosques for the short period of prayer time, or the shopping malls, of which there are a plethora. The architecture is out of scale, aiming at an illusion of transparency with hints of deconstructivism, the city dissected by motorways cutting through it and interrupted by huge empty plots and an abandoned airport in the middle of the city. However there are three areas worth mentioning:

Al Moraba is a 60-acre green square in the south, home to the old palace and the new National Museum, and one of the rare public spaces apart the shopping malls.

The 400-acre King Abdullah Financial District, or KAFD, which I was working on, is set to be completed by 2018. It includes 100 high-rise buildings, with public transport (monorail), a green wadi – a landscaped pedestrian route – and lots of places for socialising and entertainment. I feel privileged to be involved in such an impeccable masterplan, with buildings designed by some of the best architects in the world. It sits apart from the city, a transplanted space dedicated to the future bureaucrats of international finance. A lively urban space is the result of a lively social life and not vice versa. Such a western utopia in the east only highlights the missing life in the rest of the city.

The original village of mud houses and palaces, Derayia, is now being reconstructed and restored with Unesco guidance. Somehow these earthy ruins have touched me deeper than the modern architecture of KAFD. Maybe I am getting old and losing touch with the fast-changing world.

The rest of the city is unfortunately a fragmented urban sprawl, reflecting a lack of real social life. In the words of one inhabitant, ‘nothing is allowed; nothing is forbidden’. Everything is separated, assigned in isolated fashion to unconnected ‘sites’ and ‘tracts’.

Meanwhile the internet offers connection. One in two people in Riyadh have access to broadband. They meet, have sex, fall in love and even exchange opinions online. The internet is meeting Riyadh’s unmet needs. It removes the impetus to seek face-to-face contact. The urban space reflects this paucity of public life. The smart phone has replaced the centre. •

Homayoun Alemi is director of Green Architecture

One of Riyadh’s rare public spaces in front of The King Fahad National Library, completed in November 2013.
One of Riyadh’s rare public spaces in front of The King Fahad National Library, completed in November 2013.