In With the New: Building for Building's Sake

I've been in plenty of cities where one sees cranes nearly everywhere. In Europe and Hong Kong, there's constant scaffolding draped around old buildings as repairs and additions are made. But, I've never seen as many active cranes and construction crews as I have here in Riyadh. Hundreds of large commercial, industrial, and residential buildings are underway. Thrown into this mix is one of the largest metro projects in the world. Nearly every major street has metro stations under construction or is scheduled to have one in the near future. Every empty field, and there's not many, has equipment in place to begin work on something or other. 

You'd think that there is a master plan to all of this. There's not. There might have been one in the past but all that is ancient history. There's 2.8 million Bangladeshis here working the construction trade. And that's just one ethnic group. Add-in the Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Sudanese, Afghans, Ethiopians, and gawd knows who else, and you have an international mix of humanity raising more buildings than can be imagined -- or needed. Not too far from my compound, I drove through a residential area and came upon this scene:

Pashtun workers (a mix of Pakis and Afghans) are laying the foundation for the extension of a strip mall running along the street of a residential neighborhood. There's very little zoning in place in Saudi. Residential neighborhoods are adjacent to small workshops and kitchens (take-away cooking venues). Mosques are being built alongside these neighborhoods. There's a policy (don't know if it is real -- but I've been informed that it is) that states no Saudi should have to walk more than 400 meters to go to a mosque. And there you have it...the reason that there's 82,000+ mosques in this country, and that number is growing by the minute.

Back to the commercial sector. 30 years ago, there wasn't a skyscraper to be seen in the Saudi landscape. That all changed in the last few years. Now there's a bum's rush to stand-up more commercial buildings than could possibly be filled by tenants. There's a glut of new and empty commercial buildings everywhere along the major highways in Riyadh. Here is one example. 

Century 21 is attempting to market and sell the glut of commercial real estate in Riyadh

Nice building surrounded by, well, nothing. The building is ready for tenants but has no takers. Century 21 signs are found almost on all empty commercial buildings around the city. They must have convinced someone that they could fill these empty spaces. They have a major challenge. As soon as one major building is raised, there is a newer one next door that promises to be bigger and better. And who doesn't want that?

Besides the metro, one of the largest construction projects underway is the King Abdullah Financial City. This is a planned financial center just north of downtown Riyadh that will contain most all international banking organizations and financial groups. I guess the idea here is to compete with Dubai for control of the financial transactions happening here in the Middle East. This complex will be served by the new metro system. The architect's renderings make it look quite nice.

Architect's vision of the King Abdullah Financial City

Here's the thing. There's 34+ buildings all going up simultaneously with more cranes and construction vans in use than you can count...before you lose count. It's an incredible building extravaganza that is hoped to be complete before its namesake -- King Abdulla -- dies. Here's the other thing. There's next to no public services being constructed. No parking lots, no public restrooms, no restaurants, and certainly no bars! The philosophy was, build it, and people will find a way to get there. And the hope that all the existing banks and financial groups will vacate their current locations and move to this new facility with no facilities leaves me a bit perplexed. Let's say they do. Let's say that the international banking community all decide to move to the new Financial City. That would increase the empty commercial office space in Riyadh by an exponential amount. Downtown Riyadh would become a ghost town.

Here are some shots taken of the ongoing construction. The first shot I pulled off of the Internet to show an earlier stage of construction.

Met a guy here a couple of weeks ago who helped me understand what is going on. He's a Pakistani American architect from LA. He's been here for five years working architecture, but now specializes in commercial real estate. Once I found that out, I hammered him with questions. And he had lots of interesting answers. 

Wise business men years ago bought up lots of available, vacant land at next to nothing. Now, with the explosion of population growth in the city and influx of overseas businesses into the area, land values have risen by thousands of percent. Those who own land are sitting on a gold mine. The catch is, the 7,000+ princes in the kingdom also own land here and there, but eye what's going on.

There's no title searches like we're used to in the west. If you own it, you'd better build on it or someone, especially one of the disenfranchised princes will make claim to it. The only way the landowners can claim to own the properties they've held for years is to show a paper trail of money tied to construction and occupancy. If the Saudi government has issued building permits to you, you now have enough proof to stave off the hungry wolves trying to steal your precious property. And so it goes... in with the new and out with the old.

Housing and Construction in Riyadh

All Nazeem, the former lawless and slum region where I reside, is undergoing a transformation. That transformation isn't being implemented by a master plan or governmental interdiction. It's primarily a result of social change playing out.

74% of Saudis cannot afford a house and most have lost hope of ever owning one. Within the city limits of Riyadh and its surrounding areas, all property is owned by the rich and by the royals. Vacant lots are awaiting eventual commercial building construction. There's been a boom in apartment construction to provide housing for Saudis, but here too, Saudis hate being confined to small apartments, especially multi-level apartment buildings, and the rent for small two-room apartments have been rising dramatically. 

Twenty years ago, the idea of having wives who worked was anathema for male Saudis. While that traditional norm may still apply for older Saudis, young Saudi couples now need to earn two incomes in order to keep their hope alive for owing their own home. These young couples also want out of the confining spaces of the apartments.  With no affordable land available in Riyadh, these folks now are headed out to the "suburbs," Al Nazeem being one such neighborhood. The influx of these Saudis to this region is making welcomed changes to Al Nazeem. Construction is everywhere. Today, I drove around the neighborhood and took some photos of the changing face of Al Nazeem.

New housing area in Al Nazeem

If you've noticed the bit of trash surrounding these houses, well, welcome to Al Nazeem. I don't know if this place is one large trash dump or some existing slum buildings were knocked-down to make room for new housing. Either way, what you see in this photo is a standard view of the neighborhood.

I drove down a few of the the neighborhood streets to take some photos. In this area, I found houses still undergoing construction and others that appear to have been occupied for some time. Standard house construction in Saudi consists of a large, multi-floored, multi-room home surrounded by high walls with security gates and doors. The alleyway created by the exterior walls and the house is approximately two to three meters. There are no front yards or back yards...every square inch is covered by concrete. Not very child friendly.

I was looking for a house under construction that didn't have its security gates locked. I found one that was on the corner, across from one of the 82,000+ mosques that exist in this country. No one was there to evict me, so I entered the home and took these photos.

Nearly all finished construction for private housing or commercial office space consists of marble slabs that cover walls, floors, and stairs. Same goes for Kuwait and other countries in the region. It makes sense for cleaning, especially following dust or sandstorms, but it gives a very cold and impersonal character to the home. Occupants more than likely use carpets, wall coverings, and window treatments to warm these spaces up and reduce echoing. But you get these marble floors wet and they're terribly slippery and dangerous for children and older people.

Quality of construction is another matter. These homes are constructed of concrete and use precast concrete slabs and pilings to build the load-bearing structure. I'm told that this construction standard is fine for this region since there are few earthquakes in the region. Still, I wonder what will happen when the "Big One" strikes. I suspect most of these structures will collapse.

The photo below shows marble slabs that create facades over concrete construction. The photo comes from my office building in Riyadh, but the lack of maintenance that follows any construction here contributes to accelerated wear and tear that dramatically reduces the lifespan of any structure, commercial or residential.

Marble slabs sloughing off the concrete structure