Saudi's sparkling 'economic cities' come under pressure to deliver

It is hoped that King Abdullah Economic City and its three sister developments in Hail, Jizan and Medina will be vibrant communities in a country with high unemployment.

A model of King Abdullah City is displayed near Jeddah July 18, 2008. An hour's drive north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, 8,000 workers toil under the relentless summer sun building what Saudi Arabia hopes will be the key to its social and economic future. Picture taken July 18, 2008. To match feature SAUDI-ECONCITIES/  REUTERS/Susan Baaghil (SAUDI ARABIA) *** Local Caption ***  AMM102_ SAUDI-ECONC_0820_11.JPG
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JEDDAH // An hour's drive north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, 8,000 workers toil under the relentless summer sun building what Saudi Arabia hopes will be the key to its social and economic future. If all goes to plan, by 2020 the King Abdullah Economic City and three sister developments in Hail, Jizan and Medina will be vibrant communities in a country with high unemployment and an over-reliance on oil.

Allowing women to drive cars and possibly permitting cinemas, they may also increase freedom in Saudi Arabia. But while funds are plentiful - the government says the plan has attracted US$35 billion (Dh128.5bn) of investment from global players - many forces including the religious establishment and tension in nearby Iran and Iraq could hinder the process. In the "economic cities", many expect the clerics to be kept at a distance from social life, the workplace and education.

"Society has changed fundamentally and the measure of it is that the official fatwa [religious edict] of old no longer has the hold it had," said the reformist cleric Abdelaziz al Gasim. He said social and political taboos had been broken, citing women revealing their faces in some public places and popular participation in 2005 municipal elections. "A girl or young man who hears a fatwa doesn't just obey, he goes to Google and hears other opinions and discusses," he said.

Although there is not much to see, the King Abdullah Economic City will be the jewel in the "economic cities" crown. A grand gate bearing the king's image and words "the vision of our leader has embodied our dreams" stands virtually alone in an expanse of desert covering more than 388 square km. But after the gate, a long road with banners on lamp posts unveils the magnitude of the ambition - a modern, eco-friendly mix of port and industrial zone, financial centre, residential quarters, luxury resort and schools and colleges.

An architect's model in a showroom by the sea displays a stunning mix of skyscrapers, beach and resort, with a "media city" thrown in for good measure, where publicity posters suggest Britain's BBC for one will maintain offices. Developed by Emaar Economic City, a subsidiary of Dubai's Emaar Properties, this was the first of the four to be launched in 2006. "Do you know the city will be larger than Washington?" said the project's public relations manager, Rayyan al Dahlawia, on a site tour. Two million people will work and play inside the protected zone.

The aims of the cities go beyond job creation to urban renewal, modern education and easing the grip of the religious establishment. Clerics require gender segregation throughout society, from cafes and restaurants to schools and universities. Clerical influence is strong in a state education system burdened by low standards and a strong emphasis on religion. "Saudi Arabia today doesn't offer the kind of services that are required," said Fahd al Rasheed, the chief executive of Emaar Economic City. "There is a lack of infrastructure, and basic urban aesthetic beauty is also missing.

"We have 60 per cent of our population under 30 and these people need places to live. So we are going to create the educational opportunities for them to come, study and work." The plan is that by 2010 up to 10,000 housing units will have been completed in King Abdullah Economic City, with about 500 inhabited and 10 per cent of the city finished. "We're all looking forward to it," said Samar Fatany, a columnist and radio presenter in nearby Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's most liberal city, where segregation rules are often not strictly enforced.

Critics say even these bubbles of modernity will not be enough to attract global or even Saudi interest, given the ease of living and working in neighbouring cities such as Dubai. The bureaucratic red tape could be enough to discourage many foreigners, including Arabs, from living and investing there - particularly in underdeveloped Jizan near Yemen, and the desert town of Hail. The Knowledge City in Medina, closed to non-Muslims, will aim to attract Muslim information technology experts from Asia.

"They are white elephants and not economically sustainable without huge subsidies," said a senior diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's hard to find serious economists, who aren't in the pay of the Saudis, who think it is sustainable." And the clerics and their vast network of supporters, bolstered by natural social conservatism, are not giving up. "The king has good intentions but when it goes down to lower levels there is resistance," said Abdullah al Alami, a columnist from Khobar, another liberal enclave, in the eastern part of the country.

He cited continued insistence on gender segregation in the workplace, schools and universities as a sign of clerics consolidating control in return for concessions in liberal zones. Diplomats say King Abdullah and his advisers are worried that the shine is rapidly disappearing from the economic city concept and are pushing for results at the King Abdullah Economic City. Emaar has had three chief executives since 2006 and business figures in Jeddah say the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, charged with overseeing the project, is being pressed to produce results. * Reuters