Cities throughout the world are undergoing massive urban renewal projects aiming at capitalizing on the momentum generated by the coronavirus pandemic. In the Middle East, Casablanca’s “Bouregreg River” development strives to make Rabat a major destination for investors, tourists, and the wealthy. Cairo’s “Maspero” development is a massive slum relocation project, resettling residents in newly built enclaves outside the city, while their neighborhood will be replaced with a high-end mixed-use project. And “Abdali” is an exclusive mixed-use project comprised of high-rise glass towers in the heart of Amman. In the Gulf region, no city captures this more than Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Known by the adage “Jeddah is different,” the city overlooks the pristine shores of the Red Sea. Saudi author Abdo Khal’s 2010 novel “Throwing Sparks” portrayed Jeddah as suffering from an endemic inequality and deep cleavage between the wealthy and the marginalized and impoverished. Since then, the old center has been renovated, but much work remains to be done. Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently introduced the massive $20 billion “Jeddah Central” project that promises the development of major landmarks and cultural offerings. But it also includes the demolition of entire neighborhoods, with significant expropriation of residents’ property, leading residents in affected areas to engage in a rare form of resistance, through graffiti and a social media campaign. Still in its early stages, Jeddah Central can build on lessons from other urban renewal projects to focus on inclusive urban development to benefit all people rather than simply a select few.
In January 2006, King Mohammed VI of Morocco announced the launch of the Bouregreg Valley redevelopment project, which would become the largest urban renewal project in the country’s history. Located between Rabat and its sister city, Salé, it is the centerpiece of the monarchy’s efforts to rebrand Rabat as a “city of light” and the “cultural capital of Morocco.” The aim is to increase Rabat’s competitiveness among major globalized modern metropolises. Its scale is massive, extending over approximately 26 square miles, and comprised of a mix of high-end residential, cultural, and tourist facilities. While the development has been portrayed as a way to upgrade the city and improve the lives of its inhabitants by creating work opportunities, it has been criticized for pandering to wealthy investors and prioritizing profit at the expense of the area’s original residents. Urban scholar Koenraad Bogaert argued that “The result is not less authoritarianism, but rather authoritarianism with a different face: new institutions, new planning methods and new (global) relations of power.”
A similar approach is being taken in the ongoing development of downtown Cairo, Egypt. The Maspero Triangle neighborhood on the banks of the Nile includes a massive informal settlement, a dense urban fabric, and some historic structures dating back to the 19th century. Standing at the tip of this triangle is the massive Radio and Television building built in the 1960s. Over the years, vacant land in the center of the triangle was built up by residents with no formal deeds, slowly becoming part of the architectural and cultural heritage of Cairo. The 75-acre wedge-shaped area was home to 20,000 residents. In 2018, the government started forcibly evicting residents by cutting off water and electricity, until the entire area was ultimately razed to the ground. The development plans for new residential, commercial, and retail spaces, including high-rise towers and an upscale mall, while relocating the majority low-income population to the Asmarat housing complex on the outskirts of Cairo. In effect, an area that could have been carefully preserved to retain an important layer of Cairo’s architectural heritage was demolished, prompting one long-time resident of Cairo to lament, “Why do we destroy what makes us?”
Amman in Jordan has its share of spectacular development projects. The Abdali district is a highly touted new central business area. The project is being developed by Mawared, a state-owned investment company with strong links to the Jordanian military; Kuwait Projects Company; and the Horizon Group owned by Bahaa Hariri, a son of Rafik Hariri, the assassinated Lebanese prime minister. The project provides 10,000 jobs and houses more than 460 business units, including offices for multinational corporations, such as Amazon, Huawei, LG, and Bigo, as well as 1,200 hotel rooms and 720 residential units. The project includes a pedestrianized boulevard that is meant to serve as “the spine” of the new business district, with an open-air mall meant to be enjoyed by all residents. And it is also intended to connect Amman’s bustling, but modest, downtown with the more upscale banking and residential Shmeisani district. The project has strong government backing – the king highlighted the need to capitalize on its success, noting the importance of promoting various local and foreign investments to create further employment opportunities. And yet there have been critics, including the United Nations, which issued the report “Urbanization and the Changing Character of the Arab City” that discussed Abdali. It stressed that, “There is a strong need for more integrated thinking that moves beyond producing islands of development that are surrounded by major highways.” The report questioned whether the “upscale” development model is the proper one to follow. And an article in Financial Times called the development “unashamedly high-end.” Similarly, Jordanian architect and scholar Rami Farouk Daher suggested that such “neoliberal urban restructuring” results in geographies of inequalities and spaces of social exclusion leading to major displacements of lower-income urban communities. Extremely exclusive, these projects are built at the expense of water resources and green patches and work to push the poor to the outskirts of the city, to deserted locations that are remote from commercial and social facilities and in need of infrastructure.
Such developments are not just confined to the Arab region. Other examples include Kings Cross in London, Hudson Yards in New York City, and a massive urban renewal scheme along Belgrade’s waterfront. While there is nothing inherently wrong with urban upgrading, there is also a need to consider inclusivity and ensure that such projects respect their locale in a meaningful way.
Urban centers in Saudi Arabia have been undergoing various modernization schemes hailing back to the 1950s, when Riyadh was designated the capital of the kingdom. This ushered in an era of investing in massive urban infrastructure projects, building new neighborhoods and modern governmental structures. Previously known as “New Jeddah Downtown,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched “Jeddah Central” in 2021 at an estimated cost of $20 billion. The project plans to develop over 2 square miles of land overlooking the Red Sea. It is being financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, and local and international investors. Jeddah Central will include an opera house, a museum, a stadium, an oceanarium, large hotels, restaurants, retail locations, and 17,000 residential units. It will prioritize open spaces, designated walking areas, and public services, which will make up 40% of the total project area. The project’s master plan also aims to incorporate new technologies to transform Jeddah into a “smart destination” and implement sustainability programs. Phase one, to be completed by 2027, will focus on the waterfront, which will extend nearly 6 miles and feature a marina, a 1.3-mile beach, resorts, and a promenade. Phase two is due to be completed by 2030 and will include green spaces, innovative educational resources, a mosque that will combine both modern and traditional designs, a library, a coral bay, and a smart technology-equipped museum. The third phase, beyond 2030, will add world-class health-care facilities and a district centered around innovation and culture.
To assure Saudis that the project will not be a replica of developments taking place across the globe, Jeddah Central’s planners clarify that they “have drawn inspiration from the city’s rich history and distinct cultural identity, while paying homage to its modern-day diversity and recognizing its future potential as a global destination.” To that end, they plan to preserve, renew, and repurpose existing landmarks, such as the city’s old water-treatment plant, a government hospital, and a soccer stadium. According to official statements, the water-treatment plant will be converted into a museum showcasing the kingdom’s industrial heritage and its relationship with the sea. The oceanarium is considered one of the development’s key attractions and will be a celebration of the Red Sea and its natural environment, ecology, and marine life.
Musaed Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi architect, said that the development, with its amenities and attractions, will attract more revenue to the area. He wistfully believes that the project will provide housing to meet the needs of young professionals and improve overall living standards for Jeddah’s residents. Such optimistic views notwithstanding, there are concerns that the real aim is financial profit, attracting external investment and catering to a global clientele. Recent reports suggest that the Jeddah Central project is expected to add $12.5 billion to the kingdom’s economy by 2030. Certainly, there is value in highlighting the economic benefits, but it is also important to consider the social impact of these projects and the extent to which they contribute to an inclusive urban landscape.
Absent from the discussions regarding Jeddah Central are plans to provide affordable housing options – not in the form of remote districts in the city’s outskirts but as an integral part of the project. There should also be provisions to ensure that the development’s public spaces are truly inclusive and perhaps even allow for a regulated form of informal use (for example, permitting the presence of food vendors). While the developers claim that they will consider the city’s historic character and identity, this can easily turn into a pastiche that merely provides the appearance of a historic district, as a fossilized version of Jeddah’s past that caters to the expectations of tourists and outsiders but lacks the presence of local traders and residents. To avoid this, designers should create a setting that is truly inspired by the city’s traditional marketplaces by catering to all citizens, in addition to visitors. And they should look to Bouregreg, Maspero, and Abdali as a word of caution against turning Jeddah Central into an isolated island. “Jeddah Central” should be truly integrated and blended with the surrounding city and other ongoing developments so as not to exacerbate existing patterns of inequality. Authorities in the kingdom should balance the desire for the spectacular with an approach that targets all residents, not just the wealthy, so that the city can truly stay true to its exceptionality.