Riyadh Drifting: Walking in the City

Yasser Elsheshtawy
09 Jun 2019

Image 1: Downtown Riyadh, 1960s

A collection of artists, intellectuals, academics and activists came together in the late 1950s and formed a movement that presented a counterpoint to the excesses of capitalist society. Called Situationists they argued against what they dubbed the “Society of the Spectacle” according to one of its main proponents, Guy Debord (Debord, 1995). In essence a political movement, it aimed at liberating citizens through acts of engagement with the city and claiming parts of it. A particularly interesting strategy was dérive, or drifting. It is defined as an unplanned journey through an urban landscape where people drop their everyday habits and are drawn by the attractions of the city and the encounters they find there. An alternative geography of the city is constructed, one that is entirely predicated on the movement of its citizens. Instead of the rigid city envisioned by planners, another city emerges defined by people and their activities, perceptions and desires.

The act of walking is valorized and celebrated; seen as a way to claim the city and assert ones right and thus a sense of belonging and ownership (e.g. Certeau, 1984; Middleton, 2018). Such views could be seen as a critique against the modernist city. They were planned and built with the car as the primary mode of movement, eliminating the need for walking resulting in anonymous and soulless urban centres, emptied of any sign of life. The spectacular urban centres of the Arab Gulf were particularly susceptible to such approaches given their rapid rise and a desire to move away from an impoverished past. Technology and motorized transport were deemed to be an expression of significance and a sign of acquiring world-class city status.

Aside from the social implications there has been an increased focus on health benefits associated with walking. Numerous studies have shown correlations between the morphology of neighbourhoods and people’s health (e.g. Frank and Engelke, 2001). This was prompted by an increase in various life-style diseases such as obesity and diabetes. The planning profession responded to these concerns and began to suggest a change, resulting in a movement called New Urbanism founded in the US in the early 1980s. It aimed at introducing planning ideas that would place people front and centre and de-emphasize the focus on cars (Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck, 2000). Walking and use of non-motorized transport such as bicycles became fashionable again (Speck, 2012). The real estate industry capitalized on these trends and introduced a walkability score as a way to entice people to invest in homes located in walkable neighbourhoods.[i] Thus places with a higher ‘Walk Score’ would command a higher price – an unthinkable proposition a couple of decades ago.

Cities in the Arab Gulf were planned along multi-lane highways; their model was not Venice but Los Angeles. Riyadh was influenced by this kind of thinking (as noted in the previous blog). A city plan authored by a Greek planner, Doxiadis, relied on a modular structure which ignored public transportation, with a vision that urban pedestrian life will take place in respective neighbourhoods. The city’s massive expansion in the 1970s and subsequent urban sprawl, resulted in an environment that by all objective measures was not walkable. Riyadh became the very embodiment of an anti-pedestrian city. Narrow sidewalks were taken over by merchants, who crowded out pedestrians forcing them onto the street where they shared space with cars. Motorways bifurcated neighbourhoods isolating them from each other. Tunnels and bridges signified the triumph of traffic engineers and the dominance of motorized infrastructure.

Image 2: Downtown Riyadh. 1980s: Thumairy Street

Most of that started changing when its former mayor, Prince Adbulaziz bin Ayyaf (1990–2012), introduced the humanization initiative. It is comprised of several components including ‘Encouraging walking and exercise’. In order to achieve this a series of projects were implemented: pedestrian paths, habilitating the sidewalk of main roads (see previous blog) and municipal plazas with playing fields and more, children playgrounds (to be discussed in an upcoming blog).

According to the former mayor one of the main incentives for initiating these projects was what he saw as unsuitable streets and sidewalks and an overall desire to improve the physical conditions of the city to be in line with residents’ needs. In the case of walking paths some were newly planned and others were modified to be suitable for such an activity. This included what came to be known locally as the ‘path of pregnant women’. It was a place where women in the late stages of their pregnancy would walk to minimize the risk of delivery. Yet the sidewalk was narrow and filled with obstacles. Adjustments included doubling its length through an extension around Prince Sultan University, the addition of prayer corners, toilets and facilities for ablution. Furthermore, the path was provided with trees, street furniture and sprinklers to alleviate the heat of the summer months (Bin Ayyaf, 2017). All these initiatives were extensively covered in the local media, hailing the arrival of Riyadh as a ‘city for pedestrians’ and that they are an integral part of the ‘Riyadh City Plan’. At the same time the inadequacy of many streets was highlighted: narrowness, presence of barriers and obstacles. Furthermore, a 2006 study identified more than 120 streets in need of upgrading.[ii] Over the years the work continued and many of these plans were converted into reality to the extent that walking has now become an integral part of residents’ daily activities.[iii] Authorities continue to be vigilant about any impediment to a viable pedestrian street network, requiring shop owners to remove obstacles or face legal repercussions.[iv] Indeed over the years the development of these paths has led to an urban renewal in surrounding areas, enhancing the visual quality of shops and buildings.

This transformation did not happen in a vacuum but is part of a broader societal shift towards healthier lifestyles, similar to cities elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia a series of health initiatives were introduced that aimed at promoting physical activities. These included: The Healthy City Initiative, which encompassed a number of programmes such as Sahatik Beddonia (Your Health is worth Everything) by the Ministry of Health.[v] The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and Sports Federation was involved in holding numerous lectures, workshops and the like. A collaboration between a public university (King Saud), a non-profit organization (Arab Nutrition Center) and the private sector (Mars Middle East) led to the Al-Haraka Baraka (Movement is a Blessing) programme providing information and guidelines for school children. In addition, there are also citizen-initiated activities including the ‘Saudi Arabia is Walking’ campaign. Promoted through social media it started in 2017 and at the moment there are more than 50 walking groups in various cities. Lastly the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 has an ambitious healthy lifestyle component making it a centrepiece for future developments, driving urban growth (Al-Hazzaa and AlMarzooqi, 2018).

Given all these initiatives and programmes it is no surprise that there was a palpable need for the provision of spaces for physical activities. Not just in specifically dedicated centres but also city streets, which would allow city residents to integrate physical activity into their daily routine. The overall numbers are impressive. As noted by the Municipalities’ General Administration for Parks there are 61 walking paths whose cumulative length is more than 50 km. They are classified into five categories: independent walking paths; around major roads; around parks; around the celebration plaza in Al-Dauh; and around government agencies.[vi]

Image 3: Locations of visited walking paths shown in progressive scales.

During the Spring of 2019 I had the opportunity to visit several of these paths and witness the extent of activitiy that occurs there. Some of them were used strictly for walking, such as the walkway surrounding Prince Sultan University (PSU). They were meticulously designed and envisioned to be part of a larger network linking them together. Absent were auxiliary activities, although the PSU walkway has a lone Karak Chai vendor who, given the tenuous status of informal vendors, was quite apprehensive when I photographed him. While walkers were relatively protected from the surrounding motorway through landscaping, the sense of being surrounded by car traffic was strong. It worked fine as a space for exercise but not much else. I observed a very similar atmosphere in the Al-Qasr walking path towards the city’s south; it surrounds one of the oldest parks in Riyadh and is overlooked by a shopping mall. The area has an upscale feel. Its pathways are carefully and meticulously designed. Trees inside the park are diverse and well taken care of, surrounded by architecturally interesting pavilions. As we were there late at night and on a weekday the activity was sparse, but there was a tea stall overlooking the pathway serving both pedestrians and cars passing by. Folks manning the stall were sitting at a distance, alongside the park’s fence; they had lit a fire in this cold evening, which added an element of unpredictability in a refined setting.

The Al-Dauh walking path, in the western part of the city, is located in the middle of a low- to middle-income district, and was a bit more vibrant. Indeed as I was walking with my photography gear I encountered a couple of teenagers who inquired about my activities and insisted that I take their picture while posing for the camera. They were acting energetically and my Saudi companions viewed them with suspicion and advised me to engage them with caution. Yet they were friendly and nothing else transpired from this very brief interlude, in many ways marking the setting as a true public space where one encounters strangers and people with varying backgrounds. Along those same lines, at the park’s entrance a group of women wearing the face covering niqab were selling all sorts of items and knick-knacks as well as beverages and snacks. Taking up a large part of the space they were operating in a semi-legal zone as they did not have official permit to sell items yet were tolerated. Further along the walkway is a large open area which is sometimes used for celebratory events such as watching the Saudi National team during the last soccer world cup, held in Russia. A bit further south is the Al-Suwaidi walking path which is much larger and is in the midst of a high-density suburban neighbourhood. It has a diverse range of users and at the time of our visit was fully occupied with walkers comprising families, men both single and in groups, and also a large number of females. Most were Saudis. Many were walking vigorously, some were moving along at a more measured pace while a few were sitting on benches. In many ways the setting embodied what a successful walking path should look like – not just a space for exercising along a blank wall and next to high-volume traffic but in a space that encourages slowness. A number of indicators facilitated such a condition: presence of people, urban form and a relaxed urban policy.

Image 4a: Activities in Al Dauh Walkway.

Image 4b: Activities in the PSU Walkway.


The space attracts a broad range of users. For example Moshat al-Riyadh, a citizen-initiated group (restricted to males) that promotes walking, had an active presence in the space.[vii] Indeed we were approached by two members who were curious about our activities. One of our companions was a director of the municipality’s parks department and he was asked about proper procedures for organizing a large walking activity. Additionally, they voiced their objection over what they saw as walking obstacles along the path. Yet perhaps the most interesting activity was the presence of a large informal market which had sprung up at the far edge of the park in a somewhat remote area overlooking an empty space. It was physically marked by street furniture creating a border between the two settings – the path and market. Different items were sold: handcrafted jewellery, toys, snacks and beverages. There were also the ubiquitous tea stalls; accompanying them were seating areas placed in an open space behind the vendors, comprised of tents and various seating arrangements. The atmosphere was jovial and boisterous. Our accompanying municipality official observed that while illegal in a way, they were nevertheless allowed to operate as they served an important need. Such activities imbue the space with a sense of liveliness and ‘disorder’; moreover within the context of walking they offer an interesting diversion from what may otherwise be a strictly utilitarian and monotonous exercise. In this manner the Suwaidi Walkway may come close to capturing the spirit of drifting, noted earlier.

The overall impression is one of normalcy. Similar to many other cities in the world residents seek to improve their health through outdoor activities. People walking in streets and walking trails is by all means one of the most common activities anywhere.

Yet the fact that this occurs in a highly conservative society such as Saudi Arabia is remarkable and was initially met with some reluctance among some residents.[viii] Clearly the provision of such sites and their implications with respect to gender mixing and the like necessitated overcoming socio-cultural obstacles. Yet it should also be noted that in many instances women pointed out the need for such changes (e.g. the former mayor’s observation about the ‘path of pregnant women’). Gradually however it became an accepted fact of everyday life, a mundane occurrence that doesn’t warrant any second thought. Indeed over the last few years a number of walking groups have been formed in Jeddah and elsewhere, comprised of mixed gender or women only as was noted in a 2019 BBC report.[ix] Looking at this within the context of de-exceptionalizing the region it acquires further significance. The notion of activities in cities occurring in airconditioned indoor spaces, the absence of informality, or the relegation of women to the confines of domestic spaces – all are being debunked through the embrace of walking paths in Riyadh.

Image 5a: Activities in Al-Suwaidi Walkway.

Image 5b: Activities in Al-Suwaidi Walkway.


The very act of walking assures citizens’ right to their city, strengthens their belonging and is conducive to the proliferation of a sense of community. The humanization initiative, as well as Vision 2030, are ways in which authorities responded to this shift in attitude. Whether through macro-scale projects, such as the walking paths, or the recently announced megaprojects (Sports Corridor, Green Riyadh) these have all put people front and centre.[x] Indeed the region is following such projects with interest. Abu Dhabi, in the wake of Riyadh, has recently unveiled projects that aim to pursue ‘happiness’ and making it more liveable; or Dubai, striving to shift its urban discourse towards one that is focused on happiness, announced a series of public realm projects such as promenades.[xi] In many ways Riyadh is setting the stage for a new mode of urbanity and thus becoming a model for the region. One that is not relying on spectacular developments, real estate speculation and an orientation towards external investment, but one that is first and foremost dedicated to the service of its residents.



As ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs & tweets on this theme!


Al-Hazzaa, H. M., & AlMarzooqi, M. A. (2018) Descriptive Analysis of Physical Activity Initiatives for Health Promotion in Saudi Arabia. Frontiers in Public Health, 6, p. 329.

Bin Ayyaf, A. b. M. (2017) Enhancing the Human Dimension in Saudi Municipal Work. Riyadh, A Paradigm. Riyadh: Tarah International.

Certeau, M. de (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Debord, G. (1995) The Society of the Spectacle (1st paperback ed.). New York: Zone Books.

Duany, A., Plater-Zyberk, E. and Speck, J. (2000). Suburban Nation: TheRise of Sprawl and the Decline of the AmericanDream. New York: North Point Press.

Frank, L.D. and Engelke, P. O. (2001) The built environment and human activity patterns: exploring the impacts of urban form on public health. Journal of Planning Literature, 16(2), pp. 202–218. doi:10.1177/08854120122093339.

Middleton, J. (2018). The socialities of everyday urban walking and the ‘right to the city’. Urban Studies, 55(2), pp. 296–315. doi:10.1177/0042098016649325.

Speck, J. (2012) Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.



Image 1: Downtown Riyadh, 1960s. (Source: Al-Riyadh, http://www.alriyadh.com/823519 (April, 2013))

Image 2: Downtown Riyadh. 1980s: Thumairy Street. (Source: Al-Riyadh, http://www.alriyadh.com/823519 (April, 2013))

Image 3: Locations of visited walking paths shown in progressive scales (Source: ©Author).

Image 4a: Activities in Al Dauh Walkway. (Source: ©Author).

Image 4b: Activities in the PSU Walkway. (Source: ©Author).

Image 5a & 5 b: Activities in Al-Suwaidi Walkway. (Source: ©Author).


[ii]‘Pedestrians have a stronger right to Riyadh’s street than cars’. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 7, 2003. https://archive.aawsat.com/details.asp?issueno=8800&article=175026#.XNrh_y-ZNR5; ‘Al-Oraija Walkway New Step in Riyadh City Plan’. Arab News, October 15, 2005. http://www.arabnews.com/node/274578; ‘Lack of sidewalks, and fast movement of cars, reason for avoiding walking as a physical activity in Riyadh’. LahaOnLine, July 13, 2006. http://www.lahaonline.com/articles/view/10973.htm.

[iii]‘The place to go for a walk in Riyadh’. Arab News, May 16, 2014. http://www.arabnews.com/news/571591.

[iv]‘Saudi authorities are asking shop owners in Riyadh to remove pedestrian walkways obstacles’. Arabian Business, September 10. 2018. https://arabic.arabianbusiness.com/arab-world/349043-السلطات-السعودية-تطالب-أصحاب-محلات-الرياض-بإزالة-عوائق-ممرات-المشاة

[v] See the following Twitter page for the Ministry of Health: https://twitter.com/hcpksa?lang=ar.

[vii] They have an active social media presence as well: https://twitter.com/musha_riy?lang=en.

[viii] ‘Riyadh’s streets turn into pedestrian walkways for Saudi women, and husbands follow their wives by car because they are embarrassed from societies’ views’. Donya al Watan, September 3, 2005. https://www.alwatanvoice.com/arabic/news/2005/09/03/27628.html.

[ix] BBC. May 25, 2019. ‘Saudi women runners taking to the streets’.


[x] ‘Riyadh Grand Projects, Ambitious Vision Transforming the City into Global Capital’. Saudi Press Agency, March 21, 2019. https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewstory.php?lang=en&newsid=1902273.

[xi] ‘Abu Dhabi unveils new urban projects in pursuit of happiness’. Gulf News, April 16, 2019. https://gulfnews.com/business/property/abu-dhabi-unveils-new-urban-projects-in-pursuit-of-happiness-1.63371951; ‘Dubai ruler approves bundle of new urban realm projects’. Middle East Architect, May 2, 2019.  https://www.middleeastarchitect.com/42940-dubai-ruler-approves-bundle-of....