Scenic touches make up for lack of structure in Saudi Arabia metro

There is a sadness about exploring the new metro network in Saudi Arabia. Not for the ramshackle urban environment, an overwhelming, confusing jungle of sand, concrete, dust and muddy water in which the city’s 35 million residents and migrants live – although many live in it – but for the stunning beauty of this new building itself.

When Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the chief executive of the country’s biggest investment group, told reporters he had personally commissioned the Riyadh metro, they thought he was a bit haughty and arrogant. But the shiny new train station is testament to the prince’s vision: it will open this year, at a cost of $3.2bn (£2.04bn), and has been a glittering construction project stretching from Yaxam to Sharqiyah.

The Saudi Gazette reports that the glass-and-steel structure includes a helipad, a 24-hour emergency medical facility and a maternity and children’s ward.

When its doors open, on 27 November, the 14-mile network of trains will carry up to 270,000 passengers daily and provide the same services that are currently provided by the older Riyadh light railway.

Operated by Alrajhi Holding, which won the contract in 2008, it has a few overlaps with the old service. There are three stops on its Yaxam line, for example.

Much of the new railway will be underground: two sections will be suspended seven metres above ground and also have a helipad to avoid any incursions from city traffic.

There will be 70 vehicles but, in keeping with the country’s ruling structure, the central station is on a 9.8-acre site – also completely underground.

The station – which has been likened to the Crystal Palace, with a sphere shape – will be laid out like an orchard or palace facade with amphitheatre-like space in the centre. A transparent platform will be provided for passengers waiting to get into the train.

Upstairs, the station will have panoramic views of the mountains. The line will run past the royal sites and has been budgeted for almost $100m in tourism revenue.

This is the newest of a series of landmark infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia. Until the 1980s, these were largely in disrepair and consisted of gasometers and towers, ornamental internal bridges and ornamental lanterns. The 1980s and 90s was a period of austerity in the kingdom, when the country was under Western-led sanctions. This created a necessity for a clean infrastructure, and many of these projects have been finished or completed.

In Saudi Arabia, public works projects are among the country’s biggest income generators: the metropolitan area has managed to halt a massive decline in state revenues, which fell from $72bn in 2009 to about $45bn this year.

Ministers’ cautious optimism about the metro’s success has been widely praised for creating much needed employment in the country, which has so far faced difficulties raising private funds.

The average salary for an employee is about $4,000 a month, which is considered a decent income in a country where one in seven live on less than $2 a day, and the more affluent benefit from four-pillar subsidies.

Unemployment is more severe among the urban poor: after the 2009 economic downturn, some 55% of the urban poor were unemployed. The proportion has risen to 87% for those unemployed people aged between 15 and 34. According to official statistics, 1.2 million Saudis live below the poverty line.

Other recent infrastructure projects include a 27-kilometre railway line in Jeddah and a central metro station in Riyadh – as well as a desalination plant in Alkhobar, a border city with Bahrain.

Two years ago, a crash at Makkah’s airport killed 107 people. The incident prompted criticism of Saudi government, and Saudis are more reluctant to fly at present.

However, Mohammed Al Mohannadi, director of Riyadh metro project, said: “There will be no holdups in our railway. To the contrary, it will shorten the distance to Mecca and Medina significantly.”

Leave a Comment