The old Qasr Al-Hokm (above) was the seat of government in the heart of Riyadh a little over six decades ago.


A visitor's first view of Riyadh inspires a sense of wonder. Whether approaching the city by car or jet, as do modern visitors, or by camel, as did those in the past, the city's contrast to its environment is and has for centuries been striking. Rising out of the vast deserts and barren mountain ranges that surround it on all sides, Riyadh is an inviting haven from the harsh elements.

Situated at the confluence of several wadis (dry riverbeds) that channel underground water to the site, Riyadh has been historically famous for its date groves and orchards. Its name derives from the plural of the Arabic rowdhah, meaning garden. For centuries, it was a green oasis in the arid landscape and thus an area of vitality and plenty. Accounts by Arab travelers of past centuries invariably refer to the settlement's abundant water supplies and vast farms that produced large quantities of dates and a variety of other produce. They also mention the town as being a vibrant center of commerce with traders bringing their wares from all points of the compass.

Riyadh is a metropolis with modern roads and buildings that has retained its traditional characteristics.

Modern Riyadh has retained much of its traditional appeal. It is still famous for its greenery, though now it is made up of extensive public parks and private gardens. And it is also renowned for its plenty, though it is no longer restricted to agriculture and trade, but extends to services, international commerce and high-tech industry.

The similarities and vast differences between old and modern Riyadh are what set the city apart from many another metropolises of the last decade of the 20th century. While embracing growth and change, Riyadh has maintained a sense of continuity and a respect for its past that would be comforting to its former residents. The city has long overrun the boundaries of the ancient mud-brick walls that once surrounded it and now stretches towards the horizon in an ever-expanding network of modern roads, high-rises, residential suburbs and industrial parks. Yet the architectural influences of the old walled city can be seen everywhere. Traditional design elements are incorporated in modern government and commercial buildings as well as in homes.

The newly renovated Qasr Al-Hokm section of the capital (above) maintains the traditional architectural elements of old Riyadh in a modern setting.

Like the city itself, Riyadh's inhabitants have had to deal with change while maintaining Islamic and Arab values and traditions. Living in a world of computers, jets and rapidly evolving technology, the inhabitants of Riyadh still cherish the simple joys of life - from family outings to camping in the desert - held dear by their ancestors.

While deeply rooted in the past, in many ways Riyadh is a city of the future, the capital of a Kingdom determined to play a constructive role in the modern world while successfully working to meet the needs of the nation.

The history of Riyadh stretches back some two millennia. In pre-Islamic times, the settlement located at the site was known as Hajar. Irrigated by subterranean water running down from the wadis and the occasional rain shower, the collection of mud-brick houses in the town was surrounded by large date groves and fruit orchards. Even in its earliest days, the town attracted traders from across the Arabian Peninsula who traded for dates and fruit.

The modern name of Riyadh was first applied to the sections of the town where the gardens and fruit orchards predominated. Gradually the name was used to describe the entire settlement and eventually became its commonly used name. By the end of the 18th century, Riyadh had become part of the First Saudi State, which was administered from Dariyah, some 20 miles to the north. Shortly after the destruction of Dariyah by an invading Turkish army in 1818, the Saudi ruler transferred his capital to Riyadh.

Some of the date palm groves (bottom) for which Riyadh was historically famous have been preserved. The city is still known for its vast green spaces, though today they are primarily comprised of modern parks (above).

Riyadh's modern history is closely associated with two dates, 1902 and 1932. The first was the year in which King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud reclaimed the city and launched his three-decade effort to unify the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The second date, that of the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, marks the beginning of a new era when the city was elevated to the status of capital of a nation covering most of the peninsula. The three intervening decades were a period of slow but steady growth for the city. The Riyadh of 1902 was no more than a mile across. It consisted of the Masmak, the citadel which was also the seat of government, a large mosque, a spacious market place and several hundred houses, all built of mud-brick. The entire city was surrounded by a thick wall ranging as high as 25 feet. The city's famous date gardens were mainly located outside the walls.

As King Abdul Aziz's realm expanded, so did Riyadh, slowly spilling beyond the city walls and into the surrounding desert. With the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Riyadh's political and economic significance in the peninsula and the region grew immensely. Where for centuries the dominant features of the city and its size had remained largely unchanged, Riyadh now began a period of rapid expansion. As the seat of government of a young and dynamic country, Riyadh attracted more and more people who moved to the city to find employment, engage in commerce and generally help shape the new nation.

The steady population growth required a corresponding expansion of the city to accommodate the thousands of people who were settling in Riyadh each year. In the years immediately before the establishment of the modern Kingdom, Riyadh was estimated to cover three square miles of land inhabited by some 30,000 people. Both the size and population grew exponentially over the following years. Within three decades, the population topped 200,000, reached 1.5 million by 1988 and now stands at well over three million people. The city steadily spread over the adjoining desert, growing in size by tenfold within thirty years and becoming 200 times larger within sixty. Today, Riyadh covers an area of more than 600 square miles.

To manage and facilitate such rapid growth, the Riyadh Municipality and the Riyadh Development Authority, chaired by Riyadh Province Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, introduced a series of master plans. These were intended to prevent the chaotic and unmanaged growth many other cities in developing countries had undergone, which had resulted in problems ranging from poor aesthetics to difficulties in providing basic utilities and services.

Abundant public spaces allow residents to relax (top) even in the heart of the capital. Although the city still has several traditional souqs (market places), most shopping is done at modern malls (below) and shopping centers.

In Riyadh's case, the city's growth has been accomplished in stages under plans that look not only to immediate needs, but to projected ones far into the future. One of the most immediate needs over the past half century has been for housing to accommodate the city's population boom. As usual, Saudi Arabia addressed this problem in a uniquely effective way. Flush with increasing revenues from the nation's expanding oil industry, the government began distributing tens of thousands of land plots in the city suburbs free of charge to those most in need. Furthermore, it offered interest-free loans repayable over 20 years to be used to build homes. As a result, while demographically Riyadh has been one of the fastest-growing capitals in the world, the city has never been faced with a shortage of housing and, in fact, has consistently had a surplus over the past two decades. Today, there are more than half a million housing units for the 457,000 families in the capital.

Dividing the city into 17 separately administered areas, known as branch municipalities, the Riyadh Municipality has been able to rapidly provide the utility connections and services needed by the thousands of new housing units being built every year. This undertaking has been made more challenging by the parallel growth of government and commercial buildings throughout the city. While many of Riyadh's new residents have been employed by the public sector, the vast majority of employment is provided by the private sector. At the end of 1995, approximately 716,000 people were employed in the capital, with 70 percent working in more than 40,000 private firms.

One of the unique tools that has helped make possible the orderly and planned expansion of the city is the Riyadh Development Authority's Urban Intelligence Service. Using state-of-the-art computer and telecommunications technologies, the service compiles and collates information on almost all aspects of urban life, analyzes the data and offers it to government agencies and the private sector for planning future expansion. The data can be used for planning major projects, such as new roads, telephone networks or schools. It is also useful to a large firm planning a new outlet or an entrepreneur looking for the optimal site for opening a small business.

Families often retreat to the deserts near Riyadh for short visits or longer camping trips.

To develop the industrial sector, two industrial cities have been established outside Riyadh. Covering 5,300 acres of land, the two sites are designeds to attract Saudi companies and joint ventures with foreign firms by easing the task of establishing new industrial units. Land can be leased at reasonable rates, and all utilities are available for immediate connection. Using data and studies provided by the Urban Intelligence Service and other specialized reports offered by the Riyadh Development Authority, investors can pinpoint the need for specific products and rapidly establish a factory to meet demand in Riyadh and other cities in Saudi Arabia. As a result, more than 2,400 companies are currently involved in the manufacture of a wide range of consumer and industrial products at the two cities.

In the old days, one of the memorable sounds and sights of old Riyadh was the squeaking noise of the old wooden water wheels that worked around the clock to pump water from deep wells. Unlike some other oases where water would percolate to the surface in springs or artesian wells, Riyadh's water had to be brought to the surface from abundant underground reservoirs and then channeled through extensive canals for the use of residents and irrigation of trees. While that system worked effectively for hundreds of years when Riyadh was a small settlement, the rapid growth of the past half century required new arrangements to supply larger quantities of water.

Though situated in an arid climate, Riyadh regularly receives rain, which used to cause floods before disappearing in the desert sands. Today, five dams help collect the runoff and contain 3.1 billion gallons of water for urban use. Three water projects with a total of 96 wells produce a further 100 million gallons of water per day. Most impressive of all Riyadh's water supply systems are two pipelines bringing 55.4 billion gallons of water per day from desalination plants at the Jubail Industrial City 290 miles away on the Arabian Gulf. These projects have ensured that Riyadh has enough potable water for urban and industrial use.

Although many date groves and other agricultural projects still abound near Riyadh, most of the water used for irrigation in the city and its suburbs goes to its vast private and public parks. Most homes in Riyadh have private gardens. In reverence to its historic reputation, the Riyadh Municipality has undertaken a major program for establishing parks and green spaces throughout the city. Today, approximately 3.8 percent of the city's space is comprised of public parks covered by trees, shrubs and lawns. Many of the old date gardens and farms have also been transformed into public parks. A wastewater recycling plant supplies much of the water used in the public parks, and a factory is being established to recycle biodegradable garbage into compost for future plantings.

In the capital of a nation that considers youth its most important national resource and which has placed education and manpower development high on the national agenda, providing a first-rate educational system has received priority. As the city has grown in the past half century, so has the network of educational institutions available to its expanding population. Today, there are thousands of elementary, intermediate and high schools, plus two major universities and a large number of specialized colleges in Riyadh.

Likewise, Riyadh now boasts one of the most modern health care systems in the world. These include 14 world-class hospitals, such as the King Fahd Medical City, the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and the King Khalid Eye Hospital, which are considered among the best in their fields. Smaller hospitals and health care clinics are also scattered across the city.

To encourage young people to spend more of their leisure time engaged in athletics and sports, the city has built many sports facilities. Some, such as the King Fahd International Stadium, are world-class complexes used for major events, but the vast majority are neighborhood parks, playgrounds and soccer fields that are open to the public and frequently used by young sports enthusiasts.

Riyadh's residents are avid shoppers, spending an estimated 41 billion Saudi riyals (10.93 billion U.S. dollars) in 1995. Historically, souqs (markets) have been a place where people not only shop but also engage in leisure activities. Today, most of the shopping is done in modern malls similar to those found in any city in the United States. Yet many traditional souqs still exist in Riyadh and are very popular with shoppers, both Saudis and foreign. Contemporary souqs retain some of the flavor of the ancient bazaars, yet meet the needs of modern shoppers, thereby serving as a living link with the past.

Riyadh boastsone of the most modern networks of roads, utilities and services in the world.

Although the original historic walled section of the city has long been overwhelmed by modern Riyadh, great care has been taken to preserve and maintain its special role as the geographic and cultural hub of the capital. Visitors can still see the restored Masmak Palace and other historic sites. Furthermore, the entire old section of the city, known as the Qasr Al-Hokm District, has been rejuvenated as part of a multi-billion dollar project to make it the city's cultural, commercial and social center. Preserving some segments of the old city wall and other historic elements of Riyadh, the project has established a vast complex of buildings incorporating traditional architectural elements. They house the offices of the Riyadh Governorate, meeting and conference halls, mosques, commercial buildings, modern shopping centers and three souqs, modern recreations of the ancient covered markets, with more than 1,310 shops.

One of the favorite pastimes of Saudi families which has been wholeheartedly adopted by foreign residents and visitors has been to take the family into the desert, which occupies a special place in the heart of Saudis. Whether for an evening drive or a camping trip of several days, Saudis frequently head into the surrounding desert. One can often see Saudi families in the wadis, sand dunes and wildlife preserves near Riyadh enjoying time with family and friends. Young Saudis often go with friends in four-wheel-drive vehicles to traverse the open desert and drive down the steep sides of dunes. These visits, short or long, serve not only as a means of relieving the pressures of life in the 20th century, but also as a way of renewing and strengthening their bonds with their heritage.

Like its residents, Riyadh continues to look to the future while preserving its links with its rich past.



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