City update: Madinah

Madinah has had to fight its corner against Saudi's bigger cities

Grand Mosque, Madinah.
Grand Mosque, Madinah.

Madinah has had to fight its corner against Saudi’s bigger cities, but multiple projects look  to transform its fortunes.

Local developers in Madinah will be hoping that the increase in the number of pilgrims to the city at the end of last year for the Hajj season is the first of many boosts to visitor numbers.

The city has long dreamed big dreams to expand its full-to-bursting borders and drive its reinvention as one of the key destinations for Middle Eastern talent.

Despite its historical importance the city has fought to escape the shadow of the two biggest cities, Jeddah and Riyadh.

As such not all Saudi companies are looking to extend their business into what is Islam’s second most holy city. A spokesperson for Injaz Development Company, the Riyadh-based master developer and investment company, said Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province remain the company’s chief targets.

Of the 1.5 million houses to be built in Saudi Arabia, he believed few of them will be coming out of the ground in Madinah. With 70% of the people working for the government, and another 30% in the hospitality industry, he estimates, the lack of clamour for these homes “might come from the fact that the population is not growing as much as Riyadh”.

But this year it has typified the resilience of KSA amid a wider economic challenge as huge projects are set to begin that will better connect the city with the rest of the country, the Gulf, and the wider world.

The newest project was announced at the end of last month, when the city was confirmed as the venue for the country’s first private airport, a four-year task. It will be built on the other side of the existing Prince Mohammad Bin Abdul Aziz Airport and will eventually replace it.

The new airport has been designed for a capacity of 8 million passengers per year and will cost SR7-8 billion. An international tender is due to be floated next month. Alaa Samman, general manager of business development at the General Authority of Civil Aviation, told Arab News: “The actual work on the airport will start one year after the contract is awarded. It will take at least two years to complete.”

The long-awaited Haramain high-speed train is another project far on the horizon. Civil work by Al Rajhi Alliance has been ongoing for a year now, though the line from Jeddah to Madinah is the second stage after the Makkah-to-Jeddah line
is installed.

For a dense population, the bare essentials seem to be working well. Data collected from Madinah Urban Observatory (MUO), in an ongoing study on the social and economic dynamics of the city, found few complaints from locals about water or electricity, despite a few laments from locals for the state of some of its old buildings.

But there is little doubt that one particular project is to transform the city and give international access as never before, and this month it reached a key point.

The Knowledge Economic City, first announced in 2006 as the third of six economic cities, has completed some of its initial infrastructure work.

For a project of such scale that will incorporate business, retail and residential innovations, create 20,000 jobs in the so-called ‘knowledge-based industries’ and bring in around SR10 billion a year this is somewhat understandable.

Nevertheless, Mark Dickson, project manager at KEC charged with delivering the ambition to reality, the change in the office is palpable.

“Certainly there’s a mixed sense of apprehension in the office,” he tells ConstructionWeek. “We’ve almost been a victim of our own success as we’ve seen an increase in demand for our services on the back of this project, but that hasn’t slowed
us down.”

He adds that the initial infrastructure that includes sewerage pipelines for the 480 hectares marked out can be a frustrating element of jobs like this, as for a long time it does not appear that anything is happening at the site.

But now things really are starting up – almost at the half way point between its announcement and its prospective completion. It has been a long half-year, mainly at the design stage for those on the construction and project management side, along with the initial public offering on the financial side.

“What’s happened in the last six months is that there’s been a closing out of the infrastructure design process and some of the initial residential projects, and we are now looking to procure them,” he says.

“This is the procurement for the main contracts: the infrastructure contracts and gated communities. There will be a tender probably next month for these infrastructure elements, including site grading; all of what we would call ‘enabling work’.”

The unique selling point for the KEC, he adds, is that it is not exactly a stand-alone city – instead it is very much part of Madinah. It means that it will share the city’s electricity and water supply.

Dickson says the KEC has been in discussion with the Saudi Electricity Company and the National Water Council thrashing out the details of supply to all its facilities. “We are close to the city, so what we needed to do is arrange agreements to be able to guarantee supply. For the project there will be approvals on design requirements passed back through them, though we’re hoping this won’t add any extra time.

He expects a lengthy procurement time, however, as contractors bid for the design and construction aspects of this unprecedented project – which will essentially be completed in stages based on demand.

“As a major developer our aim is to provide the infrastructure and about 20% of the facilities overground. Our aim is to provide 220 hectares of infrastructure; that will be developed and then when that reaches critical mass the rest will be rolled out in phases based on demand.”

Knowledge Economic City lowdown
Land area: 4.8 million m2
Total investment: SR30 billion
Expected population capacity: 150,000
Visitor capacity: 30,000
Jobs created: 20,000
Main features: Business centre, Islamic civilization studies centre, theme park, residential areas, passenger station, commercial complexes.

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