Saudi Arabia has been undergoing a massive transformation process to implement “Vision 2030”, a roadmap for post-oil diversification. At the heart of the vision is a strong emphasis on tourism, culture and entertainment as vehicles for economic change. In a country as vast as Saudi Arabia, translating into reality such ambitious plans while simultaneously, modifying public opinion and perceptions are challenging endeavors. Moreover, the restructuring of the Saudi economy is also playing a role in re-defining identities. This is partially due to the new-found interest in peripheral regions for tourism projects. On the other hand, the capital Riyadh remains central and even subject to further expansion under recent plans to develop it into an entertainment and business hub. The analysis of the various projects in the kingdom and their implications provides a useful lens to make sense of the nature of the proposed reforms, and how they might potentially impact the center-periphery balance.
The Center: Riyadh as the Transformation Hub
Due to the 1970s oil boom, rapid urbanization encouraged migration to bigger cities, and especially Riyadh, where the quality of education, job prospects, infrastructure and public services remain significantly better than in many other parts of the kingdom. The centrality and size of Riyadh has always been a widely discussed issue, especially in the past few years. For example, in early 2019 megaprojects were announced in Riyadh with a total cost of $22 billion: these include recreation parks, cultural venues, medical as well as sports facilities and housing. These projects are also expected to generate jobs and attract local and foreign investors. Two megaprojects are also underway: Qiddiyah (a massive entertainment, sports, and arts center on the outskirts of Riyadh) and Diriyah Gate. Diriyah is significant for its history, being the birthplace of the royal family, the reason why it has received special attention over the past few years.
In 2020, despite the double impact of the coronavirus crisis and falling oil prices, the Royal Commission for the City of Riyadh announced a $800 billion plan to double the capital’s population, reaching 15 million within a decade. The main objective behind this plan is to transform Riyadh “into the Middle East’s top economic, social and cultural hub.” The announcement generated much debate on social media due to the potential implications the expansion would have on infrastructures and services. Not only do these plans confirm the prominence and centrality of Riyadh in the overall scheme of change, but they also shed light on future migration trends that are likely to emerge as a result of planned initiatives and urban transformation.
The Peripheries: Building from Scratch or Re-inventing Existing Sites
The northwest region of Tabuk, which accounts for less than 3% of the country’s population, will be home to the three most ambitious megaprojects funded by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The projects will be built from scratch to target international tourists as well as potential residents: the three projects are NEOM (a $500 billion futuristic city), Amaala (located on Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s nature reserve), and the Red Sea Project, and are going to be located near each other. Their total size is around 58,000 square kilometers, covering almost all of the Tabuk coastline.
The enormous size of these developments is already posing a number of issues. In late August, a royal decree dismissed high officials from their positions “for facilitating encroachment on government land” within the Red Sea project and other in-progress sites. A few days later, videos of demolished homes in villages within the regions of Tabuk and Medina circulated on social media. National news outlets considered the demolishment in line with the recent royal decree to prevent violations and encroachments of government land. The regions of Medina and Qassim are now using a satellite sensing system “to monitor geographical alternations on government land, especially those falling within the scope of major projects.” However, the Red Sea Project specifically mentions the importance of neighboring villages for the cultural identity of its project, stating on its website that visitors will have the chance to experience the Saudi “lifestyle in the various towns and villages in the area.”
In the neighboring region of Medina, other megaprojects are also underway to make the most of its Islamic and pre-Islamic sites. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mada’in Salih has long been a tourist attraction limited to foreigners in Saudi Arabia due to religious restrictions that were lifted with the new Saudi leadership. The presence of tourists over the past years, even though limited to residents of the kingdom, helped push wide-scale changes to attract even more foreign and local tourists. The annual festival of “Winter at Tantora” brought much change that was not limited to performing artists but also to developing the region into “the world’s largest living museum and a major cultural, arts, adventure tourism and heritage destination.” Art installments and exhibitions turned the area into a prestigious destination for a segment of the population that can afford the high costs of its accommodations, services, and restaurants.
Religious tourism constitutes an important source of revenue as plans are underway to accommodate more than 30 million Mecca visitors by 2030 and more than 12 million Medina visitors by 2040. The Vision also stresses the importance of restoring Islamic sites and the development of Islamic museums in the holy cities for religious tourists and citizens alike. However, it seems that plans for massive expansion might happen at the expense of existing historic neighborhoods, as concluded in the “Future Saudi Cities” reports, a joint cooperation between the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) and the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. The Mecca report argues that current development plans can wipe out historic neighborhoods due to the lack of specific criteria to “distinguish historical vernacular urban patterns from informal, unplanned settlements.” (2019, p. 82). Whereas the Medina report points out that planned expansions can “seriously damage the city’s identity and transform the oldest Islamic city where the first Muslim community was established into a place with no local spirit and culture, and no environmental assets.” (2019, p. 98).
The various regions in the south are perhaps benefiting the most from tourism developments. Unlike the projects in Tabuk that are built from scratch, tourism in the south relies on its rich and diverse culture and heritage. For many decades, the lack of interest in developing the south contributed to a common and negative perception of its culture and lifestyle. Now, however, this sudden interest has not only been contributing to bringing tourism, but these regions are starting to be perceived in a different way with respect to the past. International and local social media influencers have been instrumental in introducing the south via their Instagram photos. The Ministry of Culture is also active in promoting the southern regions through different events, such as the “Flower Men” festival in Rijal Almaa. However, the way the south has been portrayed, especially through social media platforms, and the emphasis on the “exotic” characteristics of the south has the potential to reduce the region to a one-dimensional culture subject to a “tourist gaze.”
Contesting Norms and Preserving Identities
What sets the capital apart from the rest of the kingdom (with the exception of the socially relaxed Jeddah) is the rapid social transformation it experienced over the past three years. In a short period of time, Riyadh witnessed the introduction of cinemas and concerts, lifted gender segregation and the women’s driving ban, and curbed the powers of the religious police. However, the transformation has not been free of controversy as social change continues to stir public opinion. In the absence of the religious police, the “Public Decency Law” was passed to fill the void and to stop mounting criticism of social openness. The law does not force women to wear the traditional black cloak (abaya) but states that they should dress modestly, which opened the door for various interpretations on what constitutes a “modest” outfit. As a result, incidents of contesting social norms, including what constitutes appropriate attire for women, are occasionally taking place in the capital.
But in other Saudi regions, people continue to watch from afar how change is unfolding in the capital. For example, while cinemas opened in Riyadh in early 2018, the region of Tabuk, with the highest number of megaprojects, just opened its first movie theater in June 2020. While many regions can modernize their streets, open trendy shops and follow the food trends from the capital, social norms and values remain more or less intact. Moreover, other regions seem more immune to debates on social issues simply because they are not on the same trajectory of social transformation as the capital is. This widens the gap between the center and peripheries and can result in different expectations as to what they perceive as appropriate. A woman visiting Hail from Riyadh, for example, was denied entry into a theme park for not wearing the abaya. The debate that emerged as a result of the incident confirms the wide array of opinions on social issues despite the supposedly uniformed façade that is advertised from the top.
The developments and reforms underway in the kingdom’s various regions are playing a role in re-shaping the pre-existing identities of the peripheries, as well as in creating new ones. In the Eastern province, the quest for development helped demolish the Al-Musawarah neighborhood (which was the center of civil unrest in the Eastern Province, especially since 2011) and to build it into a cultural center inspired by the history of the region and in line with Vision 2030. In other regions, locals are setting their own standards for what they consider appropriate and decent, while others are too overwhelmed by change to take a similar step.
Projects to develop Diriyah and the emphasis on its historical significance will further impact the center-periphery balance. Diriyah enjoys a central place in the national narrative that considers it the “homeland of its forefathers”. As the chief executive of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority puts it “Diriyah is what the Acropolis is to Athens, what the Colosseum is to Rome; that’s what Diriyah is to the Saudi peninsula and to the Arabian Peninsula”. This has also been further reinforced in the new Saudi textbooks that delve into detail regarding the significance of Diriyah, its history and cultural importance. The coming years will further shape the relationship between the center and peripheral regions, especially when development projects (some still in their early phases) will be concluded, making even more tangible the social issues they have already been highlighting.