Saudi Arabia plans $1 trillion capital

26 July 2023


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In late June, a Saudi delegation led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Paris to present Riyadh’s bid for hosting Expo 2030 to the Bureau International des Expositions.

The reveal of the masterplan for the $7.8bn Expo site is the latest move by Riyadh to make the Saudi capital one of the world’s top 10 cities with a population of 15-20 million. 

Prince Mohammed set out the objectives in January 2021. “Our target is to have Riyadh become one of the top 10 largest city economies in the world.

“Today it is ranked among the top 40 largest city economies worldwide. Our target is to increase its population from 7.5 million to around 15-20 million in 2030,” he said in a broadcast interview with former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. 

Prince Mohammed explained the rationale for doubling the size of Riyadh. “There is no doubt that the world economies are not only based on countries but rather cities. Eighty-five per cent of the world economy comes from cities, and in the next few years, this number will increase to 95 per cent.” 

Riyadh’s assets

Developing Riyadh will build on its existing strengths. “Riyadh has very special features. Today Riyadh represents about 50 per cent of the non-oil economy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Prince Mohammed. 

“The cost of job creation is 30 per cent less than in other cities in Saudi Arabia. The cost of infrastructure and real estate development is 29 per cent less.”

Heading off any questions about Riyadh’s ability to deliver such ambitious plans, Prince Mohammed referred to the city’s historical growth.

“The infrastructure is already quite outstanding because of the work done by King Salman over a period of more than 58 years, during which he managed to grow a city of 150,000 residents into a metropolis of 7.5 million people,” he said. 

Turning these plans into reality will require massive investment. Speaking at the Expo presentation in June, Minister of Investment Khalid al-Falih revealed that $1tn of investment is planned for the Saudi capital. He said Saudi Vision 2030 targets national-level investments of over $3.3tn by the end of the decade, with at least 30 per cent allocated to the city of Riyadh. 

Construction boom

Riyadh is already experiencing an uptick in construction activity, according to data from regional projects tracker MEED Projects. Since bottoming out in 2017 during the austerity-driven years following the 2014 collapse in oil prices, the annual total of contract awards has been steadily climbing.

In 2022, there were $12.2bn in contract awards, the highest on record since 2013, when there were $32bn of awards. The total in 2013 was boosted by the $23bn of contract awards signed in one day for the Riyadh metro. Without those awards, 2022 would be Riyadh’s best year for project activity.

There were $12.2bn of awards in 2022, the highest since 2013

More awards are expected. There are nearly $9bn of contracts at the bid evaluation stage, which, if awarded this year, will push the annual total to over $20bn. Looking further ahead, there are another $9bn of contracts at the bidding stage and $6bn at prequalification. There are $110bn in design and $60bn under study. 

The future pipeline includes some of the most ambitious projects to be launched in Saudi Arabia over the past year.

In February, New Murabba Development Company was launched to develop the world’s largest modern downtown on 19 square kilometres of land at the intersection of King Salman and King Khalid roads to the northwest of the city. The project includes the cube-shaped Mukaab building, which will be 400 metres high, 400 metres wide and 400 metres long.

Contractors win New Murabba early works deals

In November last year, King Salman International airport was launched. If completed on time in 2030, it will become the world’s largest airport in terms of passenger capacity, accommodating up to 120 million passengers by 2030 and 185 million by 2050. It will cover an area of about 57 square kilometres, allowing for six parallel runways.

There are also projects that have not yet been announced. The Public Investment Fund is understood to be close to appointing an architect for a 2-kilometre-tall tower in the north of the city. Once the project is completed, it will be more than double the height of the world’s tallest building: Dubai’s 828-metre-tall Burj Khalifa.

Another major building programme could emerge if Riyadh succeeds in its bid to host football’s Fifa World Cup in 2030 with Egypt and Greece. 

These projects will join others that have moved into construction over the past few years, such as Diriyah Gate, King Salman Park, Sports Boulevard, Roshn’s Sedra and Warefa developments, Saudi Entertainment Ventures’ Exit 10 and Exit 15 projects and Qiddiya entertainment city. 

As the project workload builds, the race to deliver has started. Competition for resources has risen, putting upward pressure on prices. In its latest global construction costs report, UK consultant Turner & Townsend said the Riyadh market is already overheating and will warm further in the future. 

With so much activity pinned on Vision 2030 and possibly Expo 2030 and the 2030 World Cup, there are questions about what comes next. Unlike Doha after the 2022 World Cup, and to a lesser extent Dubai Expo, there are more major events coming to Riyadh, including the 2034 Asian Games, which it secured in December 2020.

Main image credit: Riyadh Expo 2030
Colin Foreman
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