15 mega-projects shaping the future of Saudi Arabia

From theme parks and metro lines to the world's tallest structure, Saudi is undergoing some serious changes

Few countries can claim to have as ambitious plans for the future as Saudi Arabia.

A number of mega-projects are set to come to fruition in the next decade, which will change not only the kingdom's landscapes but, in many cases, the day-to-day lives of residents, too.

From theme parks and metro lines to the world's tallest structure, here are 15 mega-projects shaping the future of Saudi Arabia ...

Journey Through Time

A low-carbon tram will connect visitors from Al Ula International Airport across the five districts that make up The Journey Through Time. Courtesy RCU 
A low-carbon tram will connect visitors from Al Ula International Airport across the five districts that make up The Journey Through Time. Courtesy RCU

In April, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a new tourism master plan for Al Ula in the country's north-west.

The Journey Through Time master plan aims to turn Al Ula into a global destination for travellers offering heritage, nature, art and culture. When completed, the plan hopes to attract two million visitors every year to the historic Saudi region.

Prince Mohammed's plan will turn the Al Ula region into a "living museum" by immersing travellers in 200,000 years of natural and human history.

With a focus on sustainable tourism, a key part of the scheme is the creation of a low-carbon tram line that connects five distinct districts across the region. This tramway will follow a similar route to the ancient one running along the Hijaz Railway, used by pilgrims for hundreds of years. Other options to encourage sustainable travel will include a series of bicycle paths, extensive pedestrian trails and far-reaching equestrian tracks for low-carbon journeys.

The Journey Through Time will take travellers from Al Ula Old Town and neighbouring Dadan, to the open-air wall-carvings at Jabal Ikmah and onwards to the Nabataean Horizon and Hegra historical city, dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage site.

Qiddiya

Giga Projects: Qiddiya City is an entertainment development project to be established in Riyadh.
Giga Projects: Qiddiya City is an entertainment development project to be established in Riyadh.

Dubbed the kingdom’s “capital of entertainment”, Qiddiya will span more than 334 square kilometres on the outskirts of Riyadh, offering a mix of attractions ranging from a 20,000-seat cliff-top stadium to a Formula One-standard racetrack. Work has been under way on the $8 billion dollar project since January 2019, with the first phase slotted to open in 2023.

In total, Qiddiya will be home to more than 300 recreational and educational facilities centred around five major themes: parks and attractions, sports and wellness, nature and environment, arts and culture, and motion and mobility. American theme park Six Flags, known for housing the world’s tallest drop ride and the world’s longest, tallest roller coaster, will open at Qiddiya promising rides that “break many world records”, as well as an 18-hole championship standard golf course and a cinema. By 2030, Qiddiya hopes to draw up to 17 million visitors annually.

Neom

First unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed in 2017, this $500bn high-tech city is the flagship project of Saudi Arabia’s post-oil diversification plan known as Vision 2030 that seeks to reduce the kingdom's reliance on hydrocarbons. The zone is located in north-western Saudi Arabia and is set to include territory from the Egyptian and Jordanian borders, spanning a total area of 26,500 square kilometres. It is being built on a site that is more than 35 times the size of Singapore and will contain more than 450km of coastline.

Neom will house areas dedicated to future technologies in 16 sectors including biotech, food, manufacturing and technology, among others. Neom's contribution to the kingdom’s GDP is projected to reach at least $100bn by 2030. The construction village will contain green areas with orchards, vegetable plots and ornamental gardens, as well as sports facilities including cricket and football pitches, gyms, and courts for tennis and basketball, among other facilities.

In January, Prince Mohammed launched The Line. Set to be built in Neom, The Line will be home to one million people, living in interconnected societies run by artificial intelligence designed to coexist with nature.

The project is planned for completion by 2025.

Red Sea Project

Participants watch a movie advertising Saudi's Red Sea giga-project on the sidelines of the three-day Future Investment Initiatives conference in Riyadh, on October 25, 2017. Saudi Arabia said it aims to nearly double the assets of its Public Investment Fund by 2020 through launching a programme of investment initiatives. AFP
Viewers watch a film advertising Saudi's Red Sea giga-project. AFP

Located between the coastal cities of Umluj and Al Wajh, this project is being built in a region spanning 30,000 square kilometres and will comprise a natural archipelago of pristine islands and a vast desert landscape filled with mountain peaks, historical and archaeological treasures and a dormant volcano.

The project will be the first fully integrated, luxury, mixed-use resort in the Middle East and is expected to attract visitors all year round. It has been designed with a strong focus on heritage, culture and conservation and will provide 8,000 new hotel rooms once completed.

The region has 200km of untouched coastline and a vast desert landscape dotted with ancient archaeological treasures. The developers of the Red Sea Project want it to become one of the world’s most successful sustainable tourist resorts, with a zero waste-to-landfill-­policy, 100 per cent carbon neutrality and a ban on single-use plastics.

The project is set to be fully completed by 2030.

Jabal Omar

Saudi Arabia is boosting leisure tourism with a number of new projects. AP Photo
The Jabal Omar Development. AP Photo

This major Makkah development is one of the kingdom’s largest construction projects, covering an area of 40 hectares and costing $4.4bn. A mix of towering hotels and residential buildings, once complete, the development will have the capacity to host up to 36,000 guests annually, increasing to in excess of 100,000 during Hajj season.

The eight-phase project will see the construction of a twin-tower hotel, dedicated prayer areas, a seven-star facility and multiple further hotel towers. Earlier this month, South-East Asian company Archipelago International signed a deal with Jabal Omar to bring two hotels, the five-star luxury Jabal Omar The Royal Alana Makkah, which has 581 rooms and the five-star Jabal Omar The Alana Makkah, which has 560 rooms, to the project. The adjacent hotels, located in phase four of the Jabal Omar project, are currently under construction in a prime location overlooking the Holy Mosque.

In total, there will be 40 towers across a built-up area of approximately two million square metres. Dubai-based financier Shuaa Capital provided developer JODC with a five-year sukuk worth $135m in January 2019.

Amaala

Giga Projects: Amaala is a planned tourist destination at the northwestern coast of the Red Sea.
Amaala is a planned tourist destination at the north-western coast of the Red Sea.

This mega-project along the Red Sea, in the Tabuk province, will border the city of Neom and the Red Sea Project within the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Natural Reserve, helping to establish a new luxury tourism destination.

Dubbed the 'Riviera of the Middle East', the development will consist of 1,800 hotel rooms and 900 private villas along with a retail area with 200 outlets. Amaala will also feature an academy of the arts that aims to further develop young artists from Saudi Arabia and the broader region. The 3,000-square-kilometre development, which will be spread across the three sites, will have its own airport and target luxury travellers.

The initial funding for the project will be provided by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, although the size of the investment has not been revealed. The project, which is expected to be completed in 2028, will generate up to 22,000 jobs for the kingdom.

Ad Diriyah

Silhouette of Salwa Palace in At-Turaif in Ad Diriyah.Photo by Meshari Almuhanna / DGDA
Silhouette of Salwa Palace in At-Turaif in Ad Diriyah. Photo by Meshari Almuhanna / DGDA

Known as the 'pearl of Saudi Arabia', Ad Diriyah is set to put Saudi Arabia's tourism wheels in motion. It is the site of the first Saudi state, the original seat of power of Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud family. Ad Diriyah is located on the outskirts of Riyadh, and is set to become a major tourist destination. The $17bn development will encompass several luxury resorts, including major international hotel brands, as well as more than 100 dining and entertainment options. The first hotel should be due to open late in 2021.

Within Ad Diriyah, you'll find the Unesco-listed site of At-Turaif – the sprawling mud-brick capital city founded in the 15th century, with much influence owed to the Najdi architectural style of Arabia. In the mid-18th century, it spawned the dynasty of Al Saud, who had lived in Ad Diriyah since the 15th century. Today, At-Turaif is mostly destroyed, but a redevelopment project has introduced museums, performance spaces and a glimpse inside 18th-century Saudi Arabia.

Until the end of 2019, the site had not been open to the public since it gained its Unesco designation in 2010.

Al Widyan

Saudi Real Estate Company for Infrastructure wins the contract to develop infrastructure of Al Widyan mega-project. Waseem Obaidi for The National
Saudi Real Estate Company for Infrastructure wins the contract to develop infrastructure of Al Widyan mega-project. Waseem Obaidi for The National

Dubbed as Riyadh’s 'city within a city', Al Widyan will become the capital’s cosmopolitan district, covering an area of seven million square metres. The mixed-use city and leisure destination in Riyadh’s northern growth corridor will be split into 12 districts, with more than 50 per cent of the land area dedicated to open space, anchored by large Central Park formed around Al Widyan’s natural wadis.

The $2.7bn development will be largely walkable, and feature entertainment, leisure, retail and education facilities, as well as homes and offices. Al Widyan will be targeting young families, students, creatives and entrepreneurs with its mix of 20,000 high and low-rise housing units.

World’s largest shopping and entertainment destination

Within Al Widyan will be what Al Akaria Saudi Real Estate Company says is the world’s largest shopping and entertainment development. At a cost of around $5bn, as well as a major shopping centre, the development will house large-scale theme parks, water parks, recreational facilities, extensive dining options and will use the latest artificial intelligence technologies.

King Salman Park

At four times the size of New York City’s Central Park, Riyadh’s King Salman Park will stretch over a 13.4-square-kilometre area on the site of the old airport, and will be linked by the bus and metro lines of the city.

Highlights will include Islamic-themed and vertical gardens, a labyrinth and a bird and butterfly conservatory, as well as a 7.5km circular walkway, and an 800,000-square-metre “wadi”. The park also will have an arts section that will stretch over a 400,000-square-metre area that includes a 2,500-seat national theatre and an 8,000-seat open air theatre. It will also include cinemas, art academies, seven museums and space for parties spanning 40,000 square metres.

It will also include world-class sports facilities, with a 850,000-square-metre golf course, a 50,000-square-metre sports complex, a 100,000-square-metre entertainment games area and a 140,000-square-metre water sports section.

As well as 12,000 residential units, the park will boast 16 hotels with 2,300 rooms, a food and retail area stretching over a 500,000-square-metre area and libraries.

Jeddah Tower

rendering of the jeddah tower courtesy of EC Harris / Mace
The Jeddah Tower will be the world's tallest structure. Courtesy of EC Harris / Mace

Set to take the Burj Khalifa’s crown as the world’s tallest building is Jeddah Tower, which, when completed, will stand at an estimated height of one kilometre. With more than 250 floors, Jeddah Tower will be a mix of residential units, serviced apartments and hotels, with a Four Seasons expected to open within.

Designed by Adrien Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the tower covers a floor space of 243,866 square metres, and will be home to the world’s tallest observation deck, 664 metres off the ground. However, the $1.4bn project has faced several delays since construction began more than seven years ago, with still no completion date in sight. Work stalled on the tower in 2017, and briefly recommenced in 2018, although little progress was made. The central core of the tower currently stands at level 60, and the walls are 248m high.

In February, building developer Jeddah Economic Company posted a video to its Twitter page promoting the tower as part of Saudi's Vision 2030.

Jeddah Metro

Saudi’s second city is set for its own metro system by 2025, with three lines currently under development. Phase one will link the King Abdulaziz International Airport with the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium, central Al-Ruwais and Al-Khozam. The $60bn network was scheduled to be completed by 2020 although, according to the chief executive officer of Jeddah Metro Co, the project will take five years longer than expected to be completed, due to delays to the completion of Jeddah’s bus network.

Riyadh Metro

Riyadh Metro King Abdullah Financial District Station. For a story by Michael Fahy. Courtesy: Parsons *** Local Caption *** Riyadh Metro King Abdullah Financial District Station.jpg
Riyadh Metro King Abdullah Financial District Station. Riyadh Metro

The kingdom’s capital is also set for a metro system, with the first lines said to be operational by the end of 2021. The Riyadh Metro is one of the largest urban transport projects in the world, with six lines covering an area of 176km and 85 metro stations across the city.

Once completed, the network will be capable of carrying 400,000 passengers daily using driverless trains which will measure 36m in length, and carry passengers in three classes: first, family and singles. The metro network will also have a parallel bus network.

A naming auction was held for a number of the stations by the Riyadh Development Authority, raising an estimated $278m for the network. The project is thought to be costing more than $23bn in total. It is expected that the project will increase the share of journeys on public transport in the city from 2 per cent to around 20 per cent.

Makkah Public Transport Programme

Much like Riyadh and Jeddah, a new metro system and bus network is being developed in Saudi’s holy city. The Makkah Public Transport Programme will include a four-line metro covering 180km, with 88 serving stations designed to transport the millions who visit the city each year to undertake Hajj and Umrah.

There will also be a number of integrated bus networks, with local buses and shuttle buses to park and rides on the outskirts of the city, as well as a bus rapid transit (BRT). The metro is due to completed in six phases over the course of around 20 years, with the first phase operational by 2025. In March, it was reported that 22 per cent of the project's infrastructure had now been completed.

Sharaan Nature Reserve

A picture taken on February 11, 2019, shows a partial view of the Sharaan Nature Reserve near the town of al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia. / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE
A partial view of the Sharaan Nature Reserve near the town of Al Ula in north-western Saudi Arabia. AFP

At the heart of the development of Al Ula will be Al Sharaan Nature Reserve, a 925-square-kilometre space set to make the most of the rocky landscape. The project will focus on the natural integrity of Al Ula and aims to re-establish the rich diversity of plant life and wildlife that once flourished here.

Inside the reserve, which is named after the surrounding canyon area, a luxury retreat will open in the archaeologically rich surroundings. It will consist of 25 suites, 10 pavilions and five resort-style residential estates, with completion expected in 2023. There will also be 40 additional residential estates, as well as an international summit centre, restaurants and a luxury spa.

The French architect behind Louvre Abu Dhabi, Jean Nouvel, will design the project and plans to draw inspiration from the surrounding landscapes of Al Ula as one of the main considerations for the resort.

Construction is expected to begin this year, with a completion date set for 2030.

Updated: April 28, 2021 03:02 PM

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