Saudi spending spree aims to bring fresh air and fun to Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has confirmed it will  spend SAR86bn ($23bn) to boost the quality of life in the capital city of Riyadh, increasing green space and recreational areas and installing 1,000 works of art across the city. The projects unveiled are part of efforts to open up the cloistered lifestyles of Saudi citizens, encourage physical activity and make life more fun in the conservative kingdom, alongside reforms to diversify the economy away from oil.

They are the latest in a series of planned development investments that King Salman has launched along with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sceptics might say to deflect the fall out from the global outcry that followed the murder  of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. Although investigations are still ongoing as to who authorised the killing of the well respected journalist, there is no doubt the murder, which took place inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey, seriously damaged the crown prince’s image.

State media showed the pair touring a mock up of the plans, which include a park four times the size of Central Park in New York city and 135 kilometres (84 miles) of cycling track. The king also ordered that one of the capital’s main roads should be renamed after his son.

The murder of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked international criticism of the crown prince, who had previously won western plaudits for easing social strictures. The CIA and some Western countries suspect him of ordering the killing, which Saudi authorities continue to vehemently deny.

The kingdom, and the crown prince, have also been criticised for a crackdown on dissent, including putting 10 prominent women’s rights activists on trial last week. A number of women are being held in Saudi prisons charged with the “crime” of protesting to allow women the right to drive. Legislation has since seen the kingdom’s roads open up to women drivers but, despite that enlightened decision, previous protestors remain incarcerated.

While some critics abroad have called for the crown prince’s removal, the king has stood by his favourite son and heir apparent as Riyadh tries to move on from the murder and refocus attention on reform plans that require huge foreign investment.

Work on the four new projects will start in the second half of this year and are expected to come on line gradually between 2023 and 2030. They will create 70,000 jobs and offer investment opportunities worth SAR50bn ($13bn) to local and foreign investors, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) confirmed.

One initiative aims to increase the percentage of green areas in Riyadh six-fold and plant some 7.5 million trees. The city is currently known as something of a concrete jungle with its multi-lane highways and concrete block buildings. Seven museums, an open art fair, pedestrian bridges and community gardens are also being proposed as part of the multi-billion dollar improvement scheme.

Such features were unimaginable in Riyadh just a few years ago when religious police patrolled the streets enforcing strict social codes like gender segregation and bans on public music. But life in the capital has become more relaxed in recent years after the crown prince clipped the wings of the religious police, ended a ban on cinemas and began organising public concerts. In doing so he  has won the support of many young Saudis. However, Saudi citizens have no vote and falling oil income could affect their living standards in coming years. As a result, improving quality of life is seen as important for ensuring political stability.

This edited article first appeared in Gulf Business

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