The Kingdom Tower: A Great White Elephant?

Dear Folks,

One woman who I thought would never get a mention on “Brussels to Beirut” is the blonde airship herself, Paris Hilton. Recently while going on one of my frequent rummages through YouTube, I found an episode of her show “The World According to Paris”, which I hoped, would give a morsel of insight into how this peroxide pony actually manages to command an empire. She rakes in millions through sponsorship, fragrances, fashion lines and furnishings. However, while watching this vacuous slosh, it made me realize that all the tabloid gossip is true: she is a diva who punishes her assistants, frets incessantly over her beef cake boyfriends and for someone who is a 30-year-old woman should really grow up. Truth be told, Kim Kardashian, who truly is a bombshell, is slowly overtaking Miss Hilton, one endorsement at a time. Ok, enough of that!

Lately there has been a lot of buzz in the media regarding the planned construction of the world’s next tallest building. The man behind the much publicized “Kingdom Tower” is one of the world’s wealthiest:  Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who is the nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and through his vast array of investments has managed to generate an estimated fortune of twenty billion US dollars. To understand why such an ambition project was launched, one has to understand Prince Al Waleed. Bigger is always better! He already built another Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, which dominates the skyline. The blue concave topped roof is the capital’s signature building. The new Kingdom Tower will outstrip any other structure on earth, reaching an estimated height of 3, 280 ft. It will be fifty stories higher than the world’s current tallest building: the Burj Khalifa, and it will take an estimated five years to construct, at a cost of $1.2 billion USD. The Chicago-based architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill was selected to design the tower. Gordon Gill says that once complete, the tower will resemble the “folded fronds of young desert plant growth”.

The tower will be the centerpiece for the Kingdom City complex.  Hotels, shopping centres and restaurants galore will be built, and it is hoped that a project this size will be a major step in helping Saudi Arabia diversify its economy away from its oil sector. For the wealthy Prince, the tower “sends a financial and economic message that should not be ignored”.

But in the mean time, one must not forget that this grand plan will be set in one of the world’s most socially restrained countries. It is not an easy country to visit on a whim, and it is hard to imagine the authorities allowing mini-skirts, short sleeve shirts and of course, men and women to freely mix. But if the Kingdom intends to attract investors, hotel chains, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, it will have to come up with solutions to be more socially flexible, as is the case in Qatar and the U.A.E. It would have to loosen its visa requirements and if need be, turn a blind eye, from the possible excesses that result from a mass influx of foreigners. The days when the Kingdom could afford to be choosy about migrants and temporary guests, as everyone knows, will not last forever. But not for the moment, as recent events in Libya have seen the Kingdom experience its largest economic boom in five years. According to Jeffrey Towson from Business Insider,  “Oil is now over $100 per barrel and Saudi, the only major oil power with significant excess production capacity, has expanded production to make up for Libya’s decrease. Oil production is already up 7% from last year”. The increased revenue is to be used in order to construct 500,000 new housing units. Finding accommodation for the Saudi population has been a headache for the authorities, since most Saudi families prefer to live in villas. In addition, welfare handouts and public sector wage increases were promised in February and March.

Five years from now, the Kingdom tower is expected to be launched, and what the past few years have taught us is that one year can have an earth-shattering effect on one’s future plans. Saudi Arabia has all the components to be a tinderbox. The 88-year old monarch, who was praised for having a reform agenda, is predicted to be replaced by his conservative brother Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, who is also not a young man, but commands a loyal power base. In June, Foreign Policy magazine noted, “Saudi palaces could be mistaken for luxurious old-age homes”.  If the Kingdom does not address glaring problems with income disparities, social and travel restrictions, there may be no one to stay inside the glittering mile-high tower. One Dubai-based real estate analyst summed up the mood: “This is about making a statement and not addressing real needs in the market”. A statement that could easily become both an eyesore and an economic miscalculation that will take years to undo.

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