Three days in Riyadh: A city in transition

Yasser Elsheshtawy
15 Feb 2019

Figure 1: Old Riyadh Airport; 1970s (Source: postcard[1])

As the plane descended into King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh I recalled my first journey to the Kingdom in 1974. At the time my father had been appointed as a Professor at what was then Riyadh University – now named King Saud. We were set to visit from Egypt where we had moved after living in Switzerland and Germany for more than 10 years. Having hardly had any time to adjust to the chaos of Cairo, Riyadh and the Arabian Peninsula seemed like an exotic and curious place for which I had no specific reference point. And yet here we were. The airport looked as if comprised of a series of small rooms. As we exited the building we were greeted by my father who then proceeded to drive to where he lived – a place in southern Riyadh called Badi’a. My memories of that drive and our subsequent stay are fragmented and not very clear. I do recall vast highways, scattered buildings in the midst of a desertscape. Downtown was mainly two streets – Wazir and Tumairy – which is where everyone in the city was headed for shopping and strolling. The watertower was a major landmark standing alone in the midst of empty land. Markets were remarkable: Batha, with an open canal of sorts bisecting its main street, and a vegetable center in Deira. Of particular note were the smell of spices, the sight of men in their robes and women in Abaya’s covering their faces, and the religious police, or Mutawa’, guarding entryways and carefully inspecting passersby. There were no cinemas and only one TV station which started at 5pm with an assortment of cartoons.

All of these were initial impressions and how I recall the city’s urban landscape imbuing it with a character that I found distinct from Cairo – instilling in me both apprehension and curiosity. A mixture of village, small town and modernizing metropolis. We kept returning a few times after that first encounter. Each time the city changed a bit. More buildings came on board. My father left Badi’a to a building on Wazir street, named Rosay’yis – an upgrade of sorts. A five-star hotel – the Intercontinental was opened; entering its vast Atrium lobby was a unique experience. There was a sense of luxury and distinction. We experienced American style upscale supermarkets and new items began to enter our household: the instant orange drink Tang, Peanut Butter and Uncle Ben’s rice; distinctly American, brands so different from what my European/German/Egyptian palate was familiar with. The city seemed to acquire a slightly optimistic character moving forward. At the end of the 1970s I was not able to make the journey anymore due to visa requirements (I had turned 16) and my memories of the city slowly faded away. Although I did follow its architectural and urban growth through the unique architectural magazine Al-Bena’a. In 1997 I was appointed as Professor of Architecture at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain where I remained for close to two decades until 2017. Naturally my attention turned to the spectacular urban conglomeration of Dubai but also Abu Dhabi and to some extent Doha. Those became my reference points, my baseline, for anything related architecturally to the region. Remarkably I never visited Saudi Arabia during my stay in the UAE. And so in 2018, after relocating to the US, I received a call from an acquaintance in Riyadh to visit the Kingdom and experience the capital and its remarkable transformation.

After 40 years my plane descended once again into its new (old) airport which at the time of its opening in the 1980s was such a uniquely modern structure, incorporating traditional elements, and which we as students of architecture studied extensively in architectural magazines. Over the following three days – the duration of my stay in the city – I was welcomed warmly by my hosts who proceeded to take me on a tour. I had the privilege to see both its glamorous structures and landmarks and also its lesser-known initiatives, specifically the efforts at humanization. In those three days I witnessed the urban regeneration of streets, neighborhood parks, vendor markets and community centers all of which aiming at putting people front and center. Throughout I came to realize that this is a very different urban setting from the one that I had become so familiar with. Riyadh is neither the spectacular city overlooking the shores of the Gulf nor does it resemble the proverbial centers of the Arab world. Instead it has acquired a distinctive character. A modern 21st-cenury metropolis, with all the issues and problems accompanying such a transition. Maturing and containing a complex array of layers. A population that is diverse traverses its urban spaces which are imbued with signs of time passage. These are not the sanitized and controlled spaces of other Arab Gulf cities. Rather there is a sense of urbanity – in all its messiness, informality and busyness – that reminded me somewhat of Cairo, but also other parts of the world. This was a ‘real’ city and not one that relies on a few spectacular gestures to claim relevance. True urban grit.

The first impression leaving an indelible mark was encountering a street informally known as ‘Tahlia’ (named after the water desalination headquarters located at the top of the street; ‘tahlia’ means to make sweet, i.e. fit for consumption). It is one of the main outcomes of the ‘humanization’ initiative introduced by the former mayor of Riyadh, Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf. The Arabic term is ‘Ansanna’ an expression that I had never before heard being uttered in an Arab city context. In the case of the street the sidewalk was significantly widened by eliminating service roads. As a result street cafes have sprung up and restaurants have extended their sitting areas into the street. Walking with my host it became immediately clear that this was an effort wholeheartedly embraced by residents in the area. Restaurants and cafes were occupied by patrons but perhaps more significantly were the people walking on the street, many using it as a way to exercise. Furthermore, one of the important indicators for an active street life and urbanity – described by urbanists as cityness – is the degree to which a place can absorb ‘informal’ activities. This means that it becomes an expression of various market forces and also an ability to accommodate diversity – in terms of users and activities. To that end as we were walking we came across two vendors who had set up a stand with a grill of sorts, filled with burning charcoal (Fig. 2a,b). Tea kettles were placed on top and the two were selling the beverage to passersby. As I was watching I noticed two patrons – male and female – who were enjoying their cup of tea while talking to the vendors. Others were passing by, looking curiously at the scene. While informal, there are no clear mechanisms yet for obtaining regulatory approval from authorities, their presence nevertheless showed the extent to which the street can play a role in furthering an active urbanity. Additionally numerous walkways were developed throughout the city to accommodate the desire for walking, an increasingly important aspect of city life (Fig. 2).  

Figure 2: Street vendors selling tea to passersby in Tahlia street (Y Elsheshtawy)

I was also able to visit and experience some of the neighborhood and city parks spread throughout (Fig. 3a). Again, largely an initiative by the former mayor, it is an important element in the humanization initiative. They are all meticulously landscaped and contain numerous amenities serving members of the community. Of note was the removal of outside fencing in some of them (Fig. 3b,c). In the Gulf creating boundaries around public parks and homes is common as a way to maintain privacy and protection. Yet this desire is not necessarily universal or shared by everyone. And in the case of parks opening them up in this way creates a connection with the city leading to a seamless transition from its streets. It becomes part of a city’s everyday rhythm. Many were like that and what was again so fascinating is the presence of numerous outdoor vendors selling all sorts of things – food items, toys and the like. One of these parks, in the Hamra area, had its outer fencing removed as well. But as we passed by, the enclosure had returned, albeit comprised of metal slats allowing for some visual access. There were varying interpretations as to why this happened, which included the need for protecting children. It seems however, that opening the park led to an increased influx of people, prompting a complaint by residents in the area. This in turn caused the return of the fence to allow for some control over who enters the park. An episode that shows the extent to which societal tensions and prevailing views among some has not yet fully translated into accepting the notion of an ‘open city’ accessible for all. Indeed some elements of disorder in surrounding areas still remain – broken sidewalks, cracks in buildings, graffiti in sidestreets. While not a common occurrence, and certainly efforts will and should be made to deal with these, it is also a sign that Riyadh is a real city – in the sense that it embodies societal tensions and elements of disorder that are present in any major metropolis. It is not a highly sanitized, and in turn artificial, space as is common in cities throughout the Arab Gulf.   

Figure 3: Efforts are made to integrate parks with their surrounding communities (Y Elsheshtawy)

There were efforts at nurturing a sense of community and providing space for the city’s young and elderly for instance. A series of science and technology centers – called the King Salman Science Oasis – have sprung up in the middle of neighborhoods, comprised of both indoor and outdoor spaces. Also a Diwaniya for the retired, which is like a center for the elderly, is located in one of the neighborhood parks, developed following the mayor’s departure from his post, but a direct outcome of the humanization initiative. As we entered it was filled with people who welcomed us warmly, served us coffee and dates and talked at length about this space and its importance. It is truly remarkable that such place exists for the city’s most vulnerable population. This effort at reaching out is of course an important aspect of Riyadh’s urbanity which aims at focusing on people. To that effect it is also laudable that one of the schemes aimed at dealing with the proliferation of vegetable vendors who are spread throughout the city, seen on highways and elsewhere. Not necessarily an imminent danger but nevertheless posing some risks with respect to traffic and can also be seen as a health hazard. Thus, in a few locales a shaded outdoor structure was provided to enable all these vendors to come together under one roof and conduct their affairs there. We visited one such center in the northern part of Riyadh, in a slightly impoverished neighborhood comprised of dusty roads (Fig. 4a,b). The market was quite large with numerous vendors selling all sorts of produce to residents but also outsiders who may have been travelling and decided to stop for buying vegetables and fruit. Farmers markets are increasingly an important feature in many cities throughout the world and seeing this becoming an element of Riyadh’s urban development is significant. What makes this even more so is that unlike similar projects in Dubai for example, where this may take place at the footstep of fancy towers, shopping malls or exclusive parks – it is placed right in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood, accessible to all. In other words it is part of an everyday urbanity and not a spectacle.

Figure 4: Vendors market located within neighborhoods in Riyadh (Y Elsheshtawy)

We saw many other places and settings: people renting out tents to spend a few days in the desert in proximity to the international airport; souks in the city’s old center (which I remembered from my visit as a child); the magnificent Qasr al Hokm area, fully integrated with the city, the National museum next to the previously mentioned 1970s water tower. We also visited the King Salman Park located outside the city. It was recently opened and represents another effort at providing outdoor spaces and amenities to the city’s citizens – very much in line with the humanization initiative extending to numerous aspects and facets of Riyadh’s daily life. I was also informed about a massive outdoor, roofed market dedicated to selling second-hand clothes and other items. It is popular with residents and visitors alike. The mere existence of such a place counteracts notions of the Arab Gulf as a consumerist society.

Riyadh is very much a city in flux. Driving through its various neighborhoods and along its streets and highways one is surrounded by an endless amount of construction and traffic diversions (Fig. 5). The Metro project in particular is ever-present wherever one goes – overhead viaducts, stations both above and underground dominate the cityscape. Once complete the project promises to transform the city yet again. In its old center new developments are coming up – such as the Dahu project, another Suq Waqif (Doha) perhaps. Nearby are older and more established markets: the Deira Souqs, the Maiqliya markets, or Souq Al Ta’amir. While older and in some cases outdated, they are nevertheless an important component of the city’s various urban layers. Retaining these is important for the city’s urban memory. And it also means that Riyadh has matured in a way. It is not just a spectacular, gleaming and artificial city. But one that is ‘real’ in the true meaning of the word. A place that contains various layers of history, accommodates a diverse population, but also strives and looks forward to embracing modernity. It is a city that struggles with urban problems, but also aims to find innovative solutions. Rather than engage in a rhetoric that merely seeks to view its urbanity as a form of investment for outsiders, or a fossilized open-air museum, it strives to humanize, and to place people front and center to its efforts. Through the provision of choices, the accommodation of diversity, and the realistic engagement with informality, Riyadh has the potential to defy the clichéd and outdated view of Arab Gulf cities as artificial and soulless entities.

Figure 5: Entering Riyadh’s modern City Center (Y Elsheshtawy)



This is a special blog from our editorial board member and guest editor of our special issue on Urban Violence, as ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs & tweets on this theme!