A Flâneur in Riyadh: The Transformation of Tahlia Street
Figure 1: Riyadh’s main commercial street in the 1970s. Al-Wazir Street (now King Faisal). (Source: Rasim Shaath)
Back in the 1970s the main commercial street in Riyadh’s burgeoning downtown was al-Wazir Street. This is where people would go for a taste of lavish retail (by the standards of the time). It did not allow for lingering or a slow leisurely stroll but had a strictly commercial vibe. Close by was al-Thumairi Street constituting the city’s older and traditional market. Religious guardians — or Mutawas — could be seen throughout carefully inspecting passers-by. I recall my father taking us there at weekends – a treat in so many ways but we always hurried along, in the midst of a busy throng of people. Riyadh was a harsh place then, yet to find its proper place in the world. But also full of potential. A frontier paving the way for what would ultimately become a promising and modernizing metropolis. Al-Wazir Street eventually faded into a distant memory and a new centre and street emerged ushering the city into the 21st century.
The great metropolises of the west – Berlin, Paris, or London to name a few – are renowned for their streets and boulevards. Indeed the very essence of these cities is represented through the image of the 19th century urban flâneur – that quintessential urban citizen, navigating the Kurfürstendamm, Champs-Élysées, or Oxford Street while gazing at their architecture, glimpsing passers-by, and contemplating wares in display windows; a ‘casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city’. Writers such as Baudelaire, Benjamin and others have immortalized this archetype, imbuing him (always male) with a detached and objective aura, a connoisseur of urbanity – encapsulating the very essence of modernity (Baudelaire and Mayne, 1995; Benjamin and Tiedemann, 1999). More recently such qualities were also attributed to female denizens, named flâneuses, to counteract the male dominated narrative of urban discourse, characteristic of turn-of-the century writings on urbanism (Elkin, 2016).
As sites of encounter and commerce they can be seen as essentially Western. In cities such as Cairo, for example, the notion of the street as a space of leisurely pursuits can be traced back to the 19th century and the construction of a new downtown under its ruler Ismail, offering a space in line with European sensibilities. Yet in its current condition represents a sort of faded glory of a once great cosmopolitan metropolis. Broken sidewalks, a chaotic mixing of cars and pedestrians, and a proliferation of informal vendors. But things are changing – the contemporary Arab city is adapting to the modern world and incorporating urban design principles pertaining to liveability.
Consider Rainbow Street in Amman. It was subjected to an urban intervention in 2010 based on the city’s masterplan which had the slogan ‘A liveable city is an organized city, with a soul’. At the time Dubai exerted a considerable influence on the region in terms of its urban imaginary. Authorities in Amman led by its mayor Omar Maani wanted to avoid what they termed ‘Dubaification’. Rainbow Street was one of the initiatives that emerged from this effort. Located on the eastern edge of west Amman it was, according to a New York Times report, in the danger of becoming an exclusive zone for wealthy Ammanis. Designed by Jordanian architect Rami Daher, he paved the street with cobblestones, adjusted the sidewalks so that they are suitable for walking and added scenic outlooks where pedestrians can sit and look out into the city. The street’s redesign was a success in many ways; attracting a multitude of Ammanis from all over the city – it has a become a ‘public space for everyone’ as one resident noted. Such a focus on people is rare in the Arab world, but perhaps is further exacerbated in the gleaming cities of the Arabian Peninsula.
Figure 2: Scenes from Amman’s Rainbow street, 2013. Sidewalks and open gathering spaces.
Take Dubai for example, for better or worse considered a poster child of sorts for urbanism in the region. It has its share of walkable streets – Diyafa in Bur Dubai or Muraqabat in Deira; yet these are older and have acquired a kind of grimy quality over the years, taken over by the city’s lower income residents and thus becoming an enclave of sorts and not the kind of open and accessible space for everyone which urbanists strive for. Newer developments which are supposed to incorporate latest trends in urbanism are unfortunately exclusive and geared to the wealthy and well-to-do. Mohamed bin Rashid Boulevard, a major thoroughfare bisecting EMAAR’s Downtown Dubai development appears empty, a vast space lacking human scale, and as such is not suitable for a leisurely stroll. Activities are concentrated around certain hotspots along the street – trendy cafes and lavish restaurants. A multilane highway bifurcates the experience and thus does not provide for the sense of intimate containment crucial to any grand boulevard design.
Figure 3: Downtown Dubai. Mohamed bin Rashid Boulevard. The street appears desolate and empty with no signs of life.
Yet not all cities in the Arab Gulf are similar. In the case of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia a very interesting development has taken place which could be construed as a shift in its urban planning paradigm, placing the focus of development on people and their well-being. Riyadh has undergone a series of transformations over a long history of urbanization. Its modern orientation was initiated under the reign of King Saud in the late 1950s who introduced modern architecture to the city and cemented its position as capital. This included the relocation of ministries from Mecca, the construction of respective headquarters and the building of a new neighbourhood, Malaz. According to Saudi scholar Saleh Al-Hathloul these projects ‘brought new conceptions of space, street patterns, building types and materials’ (Al-Hathloul, 2017, p. 101). Such was the change that the area was called ‘New Riyadh’. The city continued to grow in the 1950s and 1960s and new apartment buildings were constructed along its major roads – al-Thumairi, al-Wazir and al-Khazzan. A significant shift happened in the late 1960s with the entry of Doxiadis Associates who proposed a masterplan for Riyadh, setting the parameters and framework for growth, which continues to impact the city until this day. The proposal entailed establishing an axis of growth along the north–south corridor, while the natural boundary of Wadi Huneifah to the west and a strip of industrial and special-use area to the east set the limits for expansion. Significantly Doxiadis proposed that all developments take place along a modular supergrid, comprised of districts measuring 2x2 km each, self-sufficient in terms of service and the like. The plan did not make any provisions for public transit, relying completely on car transportation. As a result of unchecked growth due to the 1970s oil boom the authorities asked a French planning consultancy, SCET International, to revive and update the masterplan. They proposed a series of ring roads, allowing for the spread of mega-developments, not just along the central spine. One particular negative outcome was the absence of walkable streets. The city’s original main thoroughfares in old Riyadh, while serving their commercial functions, did not in any significant way enable a space that is conducive to leisurely outdoor activities such as strolling, or sitting in an outdoor café as noted above.
As a result of the northern expansion new districts were developed such as Olaya which also included a major thoroughfare named Prince Muhammad bin Abdulaziz Road, locally known as Tahlia (based on the presence of the Water Distillation Authority, located at the top of the street). The street was largely non-descript comprised of a three-lane road in either direction, a service road, parking as well as perfunctory and narrow sidewalks. The municipality under its mayor Prince Adbulaziz bin Ayyaf Al Mugrin introduced in the early 2000s a major initiative named ‘Humanising the City’ (Bin Ayyaf, 2017). This entailed a reconfiguration of Riyadh’s urban environment to cater for people and their needs. Comprised of projects such as neighbourhood parks, community services, walking paths and a redesign of a series of streets to accommodate pedestrians. Tahlia street was the centrepiece of this effort. The Riyadh based architectural consultancy Omrania were tasked with the project. The main changes involved an expansion of the sidewalk due to the elimination of the service road resulting in a tree-lined pedestrian promenade. Alongside this path is a series of spaces allowing for informal uses – sitting on boulders, presence of informal vendors and the like; additionally, restaurants and cafes have been allowed to expand into the sidewalk, thus imbuing the street with a sense of vibrancy that did not exist before.
Figure 4a: Location of Tahlia Street within the larger context of Riyadh
Figure 4b: Transformation of Tahlia Street (segment) from 2001 till today. Notice the removal of service roads and the widening of the sidewalk and increased landscaping.
The reception of the street by the general population of Riyadh has been remarkable. It is actively used by many, sidewalks are full of people and the various establishments are heavily frequented. Indeed the local media has dubbed the street as Riyadh’s Champs-Élysées; it has also become known as a centre where youths gather and hang out. This has of course drawn the ire of conservative elements within the society who frowned upon what they saw as improper mixing of genders in the street. Yet it should be noted that over the last two years Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia in general, have witnessed a substantial shift in their overall social direction – articulated in the Saudi Vision 2030. Focused on economic diversification it also centred on a liberalization of social norms, including the right of women to drive, opening up of cinemas, as well as allowing for greater mix among genders in public spaces. This can be seen in Tahlia Street where it is now common to observe women walking by themselves or in groups, and even sitting in the cafes lining the sidewalks.
The street has also become embedded in the city’s social and cultural landscape. To that effect art events are common throughout the year. It also is a site for celebration of national events such as the Saudi National Day, which in its latest iteration attracted a multitude of residents. Tahlia Street was one of the main centres where people came together to celebrate; in this way the physical setting played a significant role in nurturing national identity and contributing to the formation of a sense of community. Yet while all of this is admirable, an important measure of success is the degree to which a street is part of people’s everyday experience. In other words, does what happen in the street constitute an important element of Riyadh’s quotidian urban life?
Figure 5: Typical activity level in Tahlia Street during midweek, late evening. A variety of users pass through the street, others take advantage of the street furniture.
I was able to visit and observe the street on a number of occasions during the Winter and Spring of 2019. There were no special events or holidays and all visits took place mid-week. In parts it was quite vibrant. A newly opened restaurant serving Palestinian food was packed with patrons with some standing outside on the sidewalk waiting to be seated. Outdoor coffeeshops were always filled with people, and on occasions large TV screens would show a sports game, to be observed by both patrons and pedestrians walking by. Boulders separating the street from the motorway were also used, simply to sit and watch the game unfolding on the screen. Of note were people – male and female –walking briskly along the street as a form of exercise; there were numerous bike users; some people were walking in groups at a leisurely pace simply enjoying the scenery. While such activities would be banal and normal in a western context, to have such a scene in Riyadh is remarkable and demonstrates a substantive shift in cultural and behavioural patterns. This became evidently clear in looking at female use of space, signifying a radical departure from previous norms: sitting in outdoor coffeeshops, walking along the street, or even stopping to chat with friends. Overall the general atmosphere was one of relaxation, and easy-going attitudes that encourage interaction as well as tolerance of difference. This fact became abundantly clear as I was never questioned by anyone about my use of elaborate photographic gear to document the street and its people (Figure 5).
One particularly interesting aspect of the street is the presence of informal activities. Aside from people sitting on boulders, these included, for instance, a vendor who was selling tea prepared on coals; seen in many parts of Riyadh, along highways and next to public parks, it is an activity that caters for a very specific need. In this instance the vendors were approached by a couple, male and female, who proceeded to purchase the beverage. The width of the sidewalk permitted such an activity which also added an element of unexpectedness and a diversion from the commodified brands available in the official stores. Such elements of ‘disorder’ are in some way an essential aspect of a vibrant urbanity (Sennett, 1970). On other occasions I also observed a vendor selling mobile phone accessories, and nearby was another person offering traditional items such as incense. While such activities are not officially allowed they are tolerated and seemingly accepted by the street’s patrons. There were also activities which one might describe as semi-informal. These included a temporary mosque space, a common feature in many outdoor settings in Riyadh. It is basically a box, fixed to the sidewalk which allows for storage of prayer rugs. During the day the rugs are laid out allowing people to perform the required prayers. There is also a section comprised of a large wall, used for graffiti and street art – an interesting counterpoint to the commodified settings in the rest of the street (Figures 6,7,8).
Figure 6: Female walkers traversing a section of Tahlia Street characterized by graffiti and street art.
Figure 7: Informal activities occur at the edges of sidewalks.
Figure 8: An informal prayer space set up in a sidewalk widening in Tahlia Street.
Tahlia Street aside from being a national symbol of sorts, a place that represents the notion of a Saudi community and major thoroughfare befitting a capital, is also a place that is conducive to an everyday and ordinary urbanity. Yet in order for this to be a truly successful setting it needs to be part of a much wider network that links several of such streets permitting a navigation on foot across the city rather than exclusively relying on motorized transport. I posed this question to the former mayor, Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf, and he confirmed that this was indeed the plan. He sketched out a vision for such a network of streets and spaces that included the nearby 30th Street, the walkway alongside the King Abdulaziz Medical Center to the south, and the walking path around Prince Sultan University in the north. Taken together, such a comprehensive and substantive network of streets would constitute an urban trail of sorts. Tahlia Street can be further improved by providing a legal outlet for informal vendors and the inclusion of additional cultural centres and landmarks that would provide anchor points generating activities. The Science Oasis, located in the middle of the street, is one manifestation of this and can be used as a model for other, non-commercial centres.
While cities thrive on the presence of great streets there is also a danger that they can decline. The case of the Champs-Élysées should serve as a cautionary tale. Long considered the essence of Paris, a place to see and be seen, it has fallen on hard times. Subject to neglect, the incursion of low-quality commercial outlets resulted in the boulevard acquiring the character of a strip mall. Lack of maintenance and upgrade has led Parisians to abandon it in droves. Recently the authorities started the process of upgrading the street which involves new amenities, design elements and, significantly, an effort to include a diverse mix of commercial uses that would cater for different groups – tourists and residents alike. Authorities in Riyadh should heed these lessons in their striving to make the city more human and responsive to residents’ needs. The challenge is to turn Tahlia Street into a truly special and unique place that is representative of Riyadh and its modernizing ambitions. The first steps have been made, and it is hoped that future and upcoming developments continue this trend.
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