Riyadh, Middle East and Arab Gulf urbanism, Humanizing the city, People-centred urbanism, Urban Governance

Riyadh: Transforming a desert city

Riyadh has set its sights on becoming a world city befitting the twenty-first century.

Yasser Elsheshtway
20 Oct 2021

Riyadh has set its sights on becoming a world city befitting the twenty-first century. To that end it has embarked on a massive construction drive evidenced in the proliferation of proposals for high-end districts, giga-developments and elaborate infrastructures. An urban vision seemingly dedicated to attracting global capital. Yet such a narrative can be misleading. A ‘humanization programme’, initiated during the tenure of its former mayor Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf, has complemented the city’s rapid rise by providing spaces catering for the everyday needs of its inhabitants. Yasser Elsheshtawy, in this richly illustrated book, targets these people-centred settings. It is a compelling counter-narrative interweaving critical theoretical insights, personal observations, and serendipitous encounters. He deftly demonstrates how Riyadh thrives through the actions of its people. As the world moves towards an urban model that is resilient and humane, the humanizing efforts of an Arab city are worthy of our attention. Riyadh’s premise is perhaps best captured in the cover image depicting the desert riverbed of Wadi Sulai, filled with rainwater, making its way towards the Saudi capital. Along its banks there will be dedicated public pathways and urban parks. It is a vision of an urbanity where both the spectacular and the everyday coexist. A city that is not just dedicated to the few, but one that serves the many.

Yasser Elsheshtawy is an independent scholar and an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, New York and Non-Resident Fellow at Arab States Institute, Washington DC. He is author of Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia and Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle and editor of Planning Middle Eastern Cities and The Evolving Arab City, all also published in the Planning, History and Environment series.


  1. Introduction: Discovering Riyadh
    Part 1: City Governance for the People
  2. Mayors and the City
  3. People-Centred Urbanism: Origins and Developments
    Part 2: Contexualizing Riyadh
  4. Scenes from Riyadh: Spaces of Encounter and Exchange 
  5. Riyadh’s Urban Growth and Development: A Historical Overview
    Part 3: Humanzing Riyadh
  6. A Flâneur in Riyadh: The Transformation of Tahlia Street
  7. Riyadh Drifting: Walking in the City
  8. Green Dreams: Reviving the Gardens of Riyadh
  9. Regulating Informality: Spaces of Everyday Consumption in Riyadh
  10. Conclusion: The Future of Riyadh