Getting real

Jeddah's Kingdom Tower has gone quiet for a reason

Orlando Crowcroft.
Orlando Crowcroft.

It is never easy getting accurate information about ongoing projects in Saudi Arabia, and Jeddah’s kilometre-high Kingdom Tower is no exception.

There were rumours towards the end of 2010 that an announcement on the progress of what is due to be the world’s tallest building by a fair margin would be forthcoming, but it was not, and calls to the developer Emaar came to nothing.

Meanwhile, the architecture firm that is alleged to be designing the 1,000m-high tower – Smith and Gill – not only said that there was no news about the project when contacted by Construction Week, but they refused to confirm they were involved in the project at all.

Indeed, it is telling that if you type ‘Kingdom Tower Jeddah’ into Google, you are presented with a whole host of pictures of Dubai’s kilometre-high Nakheel Tower, an ill-fated project that was shelved in the wake of the financial crisis.

Not only do we know nothing about Saudi’s supertall, we do not even know what it looks like.

I reflected on all this at the end of last year during a conversation with a Dubai-based architect who worked on the Burj Khalifa. He said that while people are often keen to talk about how the architects overcame the engineering challenges of building taller than ever before, few consider the commercial factors.

What makes the Burj successful – indeed, possible – he pointed out, was not people flocking to buy flats or hotel suites within it, but the 2 km2 of retail, leisure, residential and hospitality that surround it.

It is Dubai Mall, the Address Hotel and the thousands of tourists that visit these attractions daily that are paying for the Burj, not Giorgio Armani.

The designers of the Nakheel Tower, Woods Bagot, said something similar when I met them last summer. As one of the firm’s engineers commented, it was theoretically possible to build a tower as high as you like; it was paying for it that was the problem.

GCC governments may find it easier to find several billion dollars than most, but they are unlikely to front the cash without any prospect of commercial payback.

In light of this, it is not a surprise that information has been so lacking on the Kingdom Tower because – and this could come back to haunt me – I do not think it will ever get built.

Even with the limited amount of information we have about the project, it is impossible to conceive of how it could mirror the success of the Burj Khalifa, and thereby pay for itself.

As anyone who has been to Jeddah will tell you, the idea of a Jeddah Mall, replete with starry-eyed tourists lining up to have their photographs taken in front of the world’s tallest tower, is not just implausible, it is laughable.

As for top-end business hotels, Saudi Arabia’s draconian visa policies will continue to bar most from outside the Kingdom from filling the rooms, and domestic business travel can only go so far.

A brief walk around Downtown Dubai, with its mix of European, American, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese tourists and residents, shows who is paying for the Burj Khalifa, and not even 36-million Saudis – a majority of those not rich businessmen – can mirror that in commercial terms.

People will argue that with its young population, growing construction industry and monumental state coffers, Saudi Arabia can do anything it sets its sights on, but at the end of the day somebody has to pick up the tab for something as costly as the world’s tallest tower.

Indeed, the limited progress on sites such as Sports City, where a majority of the consultants were let go last year, shows that Saudi Arabia’s construction industry is not invincible at the end of the day.
Perhaps next week, next month, even next year, when plans are made public and work begins, I will have to eat my hat.

But for now, in a country that has KAUST, the KAFD, two iconic tall towers and eye-wateringly rich rulers, the proposed Kingdom Tower is one trophy project too many.

Orlando Crowcroft edits Architect Middle East.

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