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Riyadh: Heart of Arabian heritage... Hub of global development

One of the world’s largest, and fastest growing, capitals also happens to be the least understood

Oubai Shahbandar

Published: Updated:

One of the world’s largest, and fastest growing, capitals also happens to be the least understood. Often hiding behind a cloak of mystery borne of its geographic location at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh – the launching point for the late King Abdulaziz’s campaign that ultimately unified and forged a new nation – has long been a center of intrigue and a cross-roads of civilizations where the bond between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States as well as relations with major world powers was cemented.

For visitors, there is a depth of history and contemporary enrichment that one may not see readily highlighted in tourism promotions or international travel guides. For instance, the newly refurbished historic al-Masmak fort in the city is now a museum that features displays and photographs of an era that cannot quite be captured the same anywhere else.

Standing as a testimony to the unification of the Kingdom, al-Masmak was restored by the Riyadh Development Authority to showcase both the Kingdom’s heritage and the progress that has subsequently been made as a once sleepy desert oasis transformed into a booming metropolis of 6.5 million inhabitants.

The dual themes of “Past and Present” can be seen everywhere here – a past that complements the ambitions of a Kingdom eager to prove to the world that its vision for the future will stand it apart as an exemplarily capital across the globe. Detractors and critics may be quick to cast aspersions-- harshly condemning and pre-judging the Kingdom as “reactionary” – but a casual stroll through the city centers, markets, new gleaming towers of Riyadh show that this is a city and country on the go.

Sometimes to know where the future is headed, one must look into the past for inspiration. The massive development and urban renewal projects are also complimented by exemplary care towards environmental sustainability.

Indeed many may be surprised to learn that Riyadh has won numerous prestigious Agha Khan awards, taking its place alongside major cities like Beijing, Copenhagen, and Paris that have received awards for major historical and architectural rehabilitation projects and heritage landmark development.

The Riyadh Development authority was presented with the Agha Khan award for the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands project that revitalized an incredible 120 kilometers of green desert valley that cuts through Riyadh city. The valley was once an arid desert wasteland that has now been totally rehabilitated and is frequented by thousands of visitors. Likewise, the Abu Mkhrouq Hill was once an isolated foreboding desert outpost, now transformed into an oasis and recreational site for families to enjoy.

Riyadh city’s unique transformation presents a successful model on how massive developmental projects can exist harmoniously with ambitious desert greening efforts that preserve culturally significant sites

Oubai Shahbandar

Beyond oil

As one can see, it is not just about oil here. Beyond refineries, oil tankers, and sand dunes that populate the outside world’s imagination, there is natural beauty. For centuries, wild thoroughbred horses have been bred and tamed in the Nejd region in central Arabia. As the origin of the world renowned Arabian horse, Riyadh has also gone to great lengths to maintain this proud heritage, as evinced by the award winning King Abdulaziz Equestrian Center.

Riyadh city’s unique transformation presents a successful model on how massive developmental projects can exist harmoniously with ambitious desert greening efforts that preserve culturally significant sites.

Often referred to as the architect of modern Riyadh, King Salman, who was once Riyadh’s governor, invested heavily in developing not only the physical infrastructure, but the educational facilities needed for a modern country to develop a knowledge-based economy-- one not wholly dependent on oil exports. University towns now thrive in villages that once would have been difficult to locate on any existing map.

Indeed, the campuses of universities such as the all-female Princess Nora university – the Wesleyn of Saudi Arabia – could easily rival some of the picturesque liberal arts colleges one finds in rural New England. In fact, over half of all college graduates from Saudi universities are women, and they are seeking a meaningful role in their country’s future. And with Vision 2030’s goal of significantly increasing the percentage of women in the workplace, Saudi women are poised to play an integral role in the Saudi economy.

The benefits of Riyadh’s strategic investment in infrastructure, urban renewal, educational development, and environmental planning are inclusive of a broad array of the populace. Benefiting the middle class and the sizable youth population, the $22.5 billion Riyadh Metro project or King Abdulaziz Project for Public Transportation is an ambitious undertaking for a country totally reliant on cars for transportation.

There is an ethereal beauty to this Kingdom; and while yes it remains a country that can move energy prices and global financial markets at a whim, there are other dimensions and underlying civic, social, and innovative currents to Saudi Arabia not readily captured by most outside analysts.

This image of Riyadh stands in stark contrast to the opprobrium gleefully slung by Western media and pundits against the Kingdom. At a time with the Saudi led Arab Coalition is fighting alongside the legitimate government of the Republic of Yemen’s soldiers against Iranian backed Houthi-Saleh militias, Western press outlets’ often lopsided coverage of the conflict threatens to unfairly color global opinion.

Yet behind such editorialized headlines, there is a different Saudi Arabia – a trusted ally vice an aggressor. A visit to the Saqr al-jazira museum includes the Douglas DC-3 gifted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to King Ibn Saud in 1945. That historic meeting between the two leaders cemented a strategic partnership that has spanned over 80 years to the present day.

Though originally outfitted by the British, the Saudi Air Force came to predominately prefer American equipment and planes, with billions of dollars of foreign military sales between the two nations forming the backbone of the Kingdom’s air fleet.

As one tours the museum, a special display is dedicated to Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the first Saudi – and the first Arab and Muslim – to travel in space. He served as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery – a reminder of the extent that the Kingdom and the United States are bound together in shared interests.

What one witnesses here in the Kingdom are new horizons that are worth discovering and experiencing. The Kingdom’s capital is bustling with a youthful generation full of revitalized energy exuding an urge to explore, enact change, and progress.

This is the reality in Saudi Arabia that no one would have thought possible 80 years ago. Just as likely, 80 years from now the naysayers who doubted Saudi Arabia’s transformation will look back at just how wrong they were.
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Oubai is a Middle East affairs specialist and former Department of Defense foreign affairs officer. He currently serves as a strategic communications consultant to government officials in the Arabian Gulf.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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