Architecture and urbanism are definitely taking the centre stage in Saudi Arabia’s effort to increase its international outreach and visibility, as exemplified by the Kingdom’s decision to participate, for the first time, to the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture. The Saudi pavilion was commissioned by the MiSK Art Institute, the cultural arm of the MiSK foundation, a non-profit organization set up by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman: proof of the strong interconnection between Saudi Arabia’s appearance in the global architecture exhibition and the fulfilment of Mohammad bin Salman’s reform agenda. Though refraining from making overt political statements or engaging with ongoing architectural debates, the Saudi pavilion, named “Spaces in between”, was aimed at exploring the social potential of liminal spaces in Saudi cities. In the words of Abdulrahman Gazzaz, one of the two young Jeddah-based architects tasked with the design of the pavilion, “A lot of changes are happening. We have this space in between what it was and what it is and what is becoming. It’s a fascinating point in the history of Saudi Arabia”. Change is thus the word of the day in Saudi Arabia’s architectural panorama. A change driven by politics, which is trying to formulate an answer to the problems linked to the country’s rapid urbanization sparked by the oil boom in the 1970s, as well as to implement a new development agenda for the post-oil era; an agenda which is all about integrating modernity and tradition in Saudi urban fabric.
The Saudi urban panorama is actually undergoing a deep transformation, presenting both points in common and differences vis-à-vis the broader trend in the Gulf region – spectacularisation. Dubai offers maybe the greatest example of this urban development paradigm, a model focusing on spectacular aspects such as high-rise buildings and landmark towers transforming the skyline of aspiring global cities, relying on real estate speculation to generate income. As the photographer Michele Nastasi puts it, “In contrast to places like Manhattan and Hong Kong, where skylines result from social and economic density driving architecture upward, skylines in Gulf cities such as Dubai or Doha are essentially misleading, since they correspond to socially sparse cities, with buildings conceived in isolation from one another, creating alienating stretches in between”. An urban trend that can be summarized by Jean Baudrillard’s definition of the “Beaubourg effect”. The French philosopher uses the Centre George Pompidou in Paris (also known as Beaubourg from the name of the neighbourhood in which it is located) as an example of disconnection and betrayal of the urban texture of what came before: buildings derived from top-down decision making, separated physically and socially from the surrounding neighbourhood. Spectacular city symbols substituting contents and ignoring the needs and the lives of people who actually use them, “starchitects” replicating similar designs across distant countries neglecting local peculiarities: these are common features of contemporary cities. In the Gulf, these urban models tending to spectacularisation are ways to establish, represent, and strengthen social and power relationships, both domestically and internationally. On the domestic level, these buildings, whose construction exploits the labour of an unskilled and underpaid workforce, stand as reminders of the wealth and power of the small elite to which they are available. Internationally, they "put the city on the map”, clearly establishing a sort of “brand identity” aimed at making the city recognizable and noteworthy of attention.
In Saudi Arabia this phenomenon is visible in terms of creation of enclaves operating in parallel to the rest of state and local society. It’s the case for example of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A. CARE), the “sustainable city” near Riyadh created in parallel to existing government agencies in charge of domestic energy matters. The city, established in 2010 by Royal decree, is planned to produce a third of total Saudi electricity by solar capacity by 2032. Another example is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), not a city in itself but a de facto enclave university developed by Saudi Aramco. Though located outside the Aramco compounds in the Eastern province, KAUST is the only institution where the “Aramco rules” have been applied, i.e. women can unveil and mix with men. While enjoying the favour of the royals, KAUST was met with some criticism in Saudi society for catering to foreign elites rather than Saudis.
More in line with the “Dubai model” are NEOM, on the Red Sea, and King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) near Jeddah. The two cities provide the two foremost examples of how the Saudi vision applies to architecture, and how infrastructure is created to convey the message that a city is open for business. KAEC is the first of Saudi Arabia’s new economic master-planned cities, i.e. new cities “that can transition economies away from agriculture, manufacturing, or resource extraction toward a knowledge economy”. Built by Emirati’s real estate company Emaar Properties, KAEC is a member of the Paris-based NGO New Cities Foundation (NCF), founded by John Rossant, the former executive chairman of PublicisLive, the communications holding company that produces the World Economic Forum in Davos. Together, KAEC and NCF organize the Cityquest-KAEC Forum, “the first ever global leadership exchange among key visionaries, partners and builders of the world’s largest and most innovative new city projects”, an elite-meeting held annually in Saudi Arabia, where “urban megaprojects that are fundamentally undemocratic are presented as prescient, modern, and socially responsible investments”. By organizing and hosting the Forum, Saudi Arabia appears aimed at positioning itself as a mentor of a new kind of urbanism, in which international architects, planners, and consultants apply state-driven “visions” of economic development to cities. Another example in this sense is NEOM, the $500 billion “Sci-Fi city” which will be built from scratch along the Red Sea, across the border between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The city, whose name is a combination of “neo”, new, and a derivation from the Arabic word “mustaqbal”, future, will extend upon 25,900 square kilometres and will combine smart cities technologies with a vast entertainment park and a tourist retreat, totally powered by renewable energy sources. However, the project, which was set to be the most visible manifestation of Mohammad bin Salman’s vision, suffered a severe setback after the assassination in October 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As the link between the murder of the journalist and the Saudi government grew stronger, architects and designers on the advisory board of NEOM withdrew their name from the project. Among them starchitects such as Norman Foster and Carlo Ratti, thus depriving NEOM’s project of the very same material it was actually looking for: international legitimacy.
In Riyadh too we can find those symbols of progress and belonging to the global world which are high-rise towers: for example the AlRahji tower, designed by W.S. Atkins&Partners Overseas (who also designed the Burj Al-Arab in Dubai), the Alfaysaliyyah Tower, designed by Foster&Partners, and the Almamlka Tower, designed by Omrania in association with the American firm Ellerbe Becket. However, Riyadh’s quest for a global dimension seems to have proceeded with caution. While there is no opposition to globalization, the city is in itself very conservative – “a very conservative global city” – thus requiring a different architectural approach to culture and identity. Against this backdrop, an interesting development model is offered by the project of transformation of Riyadh according to the so-called programme of “beautification” of the city. Pursued with both public ($23 billion) and private ($15 billion) capital, the beautification project of Saudi Arabia’s capital city will include green spaces (King Salman Park, set to become one of the largest city parks in the world, as well as a 16-fold increase of green space per capita), a sports boulevard, aimed at encouraging leisure activities and at making the city a friendlier space for pedestrians, and arts complexes for displaying the work of local and international artists. The project, which will be developed by the Riyadh-based architecture firm Omrania and will be overseen directly by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aims at transforming Riyadh into “one of the world’s most liveable cities”. As the architect and urbanist Yasser Elsheshtawy points out, “the focus on issues pertaining to quality of life represents a shift in the Gulf region’s urban development paradigm speculative trends in the region”. Once again, the emphasis on sustainability and green spaces and the attention devoted to leisure activities and entertainment, part of the Saudi Vision, is in line with the country’s search for a status in the post-oil era.
In conclusion, as the Saudi pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale pointed out, the Kingdom is now “a space in between”. Saudi Arabia’s new urbanism echoes for certain verses the Dubai model, with the spectacular projects of NEOM and KAEC, yet somehow it is looking for its own dimension, trying to reconcile modernity and tradition. Transforming cities and transforming societies should be a two-way process: as new attention devoted to public places in Riyadh shows, it is by providing the people with spaces and opportunities that social change happens. As the Kingdom’s new urbanism is deeply tied to the country’s reform agenda, the evolution of Saudi cities in the future will tell whether this new urbanism, as well as MBS’ Vision, is only a narrative used to convey an image of modernity aimed at gaining international prestige and soft power, or a deeper, actual transformation. While it could be tempting to see architecture and urbanism as mere instruments of soft power, it is worth remembering that cities are actually the places where people live in: they can be places of inclusion as well as exclusion, they can become places of self-fulfilment and success, as well as epicentres of discontent and disorder. Redesigning them according to the people’s true needs should be imperative. As Italo Calvino writes in his Invisible Cities, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
 Yasser Elsheshtawi, The Gulf Arab States in Venice: Architecture, Representation, and the Perils of Politics, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 24 July 2018
 Meet the Saudi architects making their debut at the Venice architecture biennale, The National, 16 May 2018
 Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton University Press, 1991
 Michele Nastasi, A Gulf of Images. Photography and the Circulation of Spectacular Architecture, in Harvey Molotch, Davide Ponzini (ed.) The New Arab Urban. Gulf cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress, New York University Press, 2019, pp. 99-129
 Jean Badrillard, The Beaubourg-Effect: implosion and Deterrence, October, Vol. 20 (Spring, 1982), pp. 3-13
 Davide Ponzini, Mobilities of urban spectacle. Plans, projects, and investments in the Gulf and beyond, in Harvey Molotch, Davide Ponzini (ed.) The New Arab Urban. Gulf cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress, New York University Press, 2019
 Sarah Moser, Two days to shape the future. A Saudi Arabian Node in Transnational Circulation of Ideas about New Cities, in Harvey Molotch, Davide Ponzini (ed.) The New Arab Urban. Gulf cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress, New York University Press, 2019, pp. 213-232
 KAEC and NFC Report highlights value-creation in global greenfield cities, 22 March 2016, KAEC Media Center
 Sarah Moser, p. 220
 Mashary A. Al-Naim, Riyadh: A City of “Institutional” Architecture, in Yasser Elsheshtawy (ed), The Evolving Arab City. Tradition, Modernity & Urban Development, Routledge, 2008, p.148
 Saudi King launches $23 billion Riyadh beautification program, Bloomberg, 19 March 2019
 Yasser Elsheshtawy, Transforming Riyadh: A New Urban Paradigm?, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 17 April 2019