Riyadh, a testament to change in Saudi Arabia

The pace of transformation in the sprawling capital is extraordinary

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The streets of Saudi Arabia's capital today are unrecognisable from the city that was once burdened by stringent segregation rules and strict social practices.

At Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport, men and women are queuing in the same line at customs.

The majority of women are not veiled and some do not opt to wear the abaya — the long traditional garb — that is often worn in the Gulf but was, until recently, mandated for all women in Saudi Arabia.

The opening up of Riyadh and the removal of physical and social barriers has changed everyday life significantly.

“Visiting Saudi Arabia as whole was a different experience in 2008 than nowadays, with strict measures of wearing the abaya and hair scarf and noticeable segregation of the sexes,” said Samia, an Egyptian tourist who visited her extended family in Jeddah.

The kingdom is changing for the better and the capital is playing a key role in the Saudi Vision 2030.

There isn't an adjective big enough to describe the change Riyadh has seen. You are taken aback by this positive community spirit to succeed
Susan Parker, Riyadh resident

The vision unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016 was the first step made by the government towards introducing a wide range of transformational projects and initiatives to propel the country forwards.

Most women continue to wear the hijab, while others choose not to cover their hair. Mixing between men and women has become more common and the religious police are nowhere to be seen.

Now, women are more engaged in the workplace, forging their own path and proving they are integral to the Saudi Arabian economy and its growth.

The Saudi government has provided increased opportunities for citizens to work in the private and public sectors through the Nitaqat framework.

Saudi citizens constitute about two thirds of the city’s population, which remains quite young — more than half are younger than 20 and fewer than one fifth are older than 60.

Today's population of 7.5 million is forecast to hit 10 to 15 million by 2030.

Ten years ago, most workplaces were male-dominated, says Khaled Alturki, co-founder and chief executive of Marefa Digital, a learning platform which delivers workshops and training sessions.

“It's a healthy mix of women and men present now when we deliver workshops and training,” he says.

“There's more diversity and inclusion.”

Men make up about half the city’s population but more than two thirds of them are non-Saudis. Many expatriate labourers come to work in Riyadh without their families.

Susan Parker, who has worked in the Gulf since 2008, including in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, said she was caught by surprise by the spirit of the city.

“There isn't an adjective big enough to describe the change Riyadh has seen,” she says.

Before 2016, as an unmarried foreign woman, Ms Parker says she couldn't get a visitor visa for client meetings in the capital.

Now she is a proud resident of the kingdom and is overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm she experiences from Saudi Arabians in this new era.

“The attitude is so open, welcoming and forward thinking,” says Ms Parker, who is head of communications for Cenomi Group, the kingdom's largest retail and lifestyle brand.

“Everyone genuinely feels they are playing a part in these changes.

“You are taken aback by this positive community spirit to succeed.”

A hub for business and entertainment

Government investment in cultural heritage restoration and the city’s infrastructure has more than doubled since the launch of Vision 2030, and these changes are particularly visible in Riyadh.

Riyadh Season is a five-month citywide entertainment and cultural festival that draws residents and tourists to the capital. At its centrepiece is Boulevard Riyadh, a 900,000-square-metre leisure district.

Last year, Riyadh Season hosted 7,500 events covering everything from music and arts to food and sport events. This year, it will offer more than 8,500 activities including daily fireworks, 150 concerts, eight international shows, 17 Arabic-language plays, 108 interactive experiences and 252 restaurants.

The MDL Beast Fest music event drew thousands of people over three days, with more than two dozen acts performing across its five stages.

As such, the number and frequency of visitors has increased exponentially, causing regular traffic jams on the roads during peak hours.

“Indeed, every type of talent and business opportunities have come to Riyadh in recent years,” said Mr Alturki. “The traffic has become a problem for commuters, which is actually a good indication of a thriving city and capital.”

The goal is to continue to drive the city’s economic, industrial and tourism growth. The government will invest $23 billion over the next eight years to maximise its expansion.

City officials have already devised a solution to the traffic-flow predicament, with the Riyadh Metro, a new $22.5 billion transport project comprising 85 stations and six lines.

This is what Riyadh represents now, a testament to the kingdom's commitment to flying high on the winds of change.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 6:00 PM