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G.20 - The show that isn't coming to town

The authorities must be very disappointed that the pandemic has turned the G.20 annual conference into a virtual on-line event. It was due to have been staged in Riyadh this month, with the heads of state or their representatives of the other 19 high-GDP world economies and their vast entourages setting up camps in the city for up to a week.

All the good hotels had been block-booked, and every conference hall, ballroom, palace, and posh restaurant would have been ring-fenced (literally) for the convenience of the delegates. The Royal Terminal at Riyadh Airport would have been the busiest it had ever been. But not to be. It has all been transferred to the VIP high security version of Zoom. I wish I had bought shares in that earlier this year!

On the other hand I feel a little selfish in being relieved that the city will not be subjected to the huge number of mobility restrictions that would have come with the G.20. Whole areas of the city would have been locked down, leading potentially to much difficulty in moving around. I recall when the G.8 (as it was then) came to the UK in 2005, it was held at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. A sizeable exclusion zone was established around the venue and if my memory serves me correctly the A9 trunk road was closed between Dunblane and Perth for 3 or 4 days. Had the event been held in central London the effect on daily life there, and the security and policing costs would have been intolerable. Much easier to push it out to a venue in the sticks.  

Riyadh has been going through a programme of high impact improvements for the G.20, and hopefully those projects will still be pushed through to completion. These include practical infrastructure such as the Riyadh Metro. None of its 6 lines have opened for business yet, this is a massive project providing 176km of route serving 85 stations across the city with an interconnected series of bus routes serving most of the populated areas. It was planned to open in 2019. Even though I have seen some test trains moving about on the elevated sections it looks as if it might be heading for a 2021 debut. Apparently for the G.20 some key routes were to have been pressed into service with important stations opening, whether or not they were actually finished. At least the construction consortia can carry on with their work unimpeded by politicians. Whilst it would have been nice to have the metro open for show, I cannot imagine Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel or Justin Trudeau being impressed by being shown to a comfy seat on a shiny new metro train to take them from the airport to downtown Riyadh when an aircraft-steps to palace limousine would have been far more secure and rapid. Riyadh does motorcades very efficiently indeed.

And from their VIP motors, the visitors would have been able to see the latest eco-initiative, “Green Riyadh” with its 7,500,000 trees being planted in the city. Here’s an extract from “Arab News” on the subject:

RIYADH: The Green Riyadh project, one of the world’s largest urban greening initiatives, is rapidly bearing fruit as it transforms main roads in the capital. Major thoroughfares, including King Khalid, Makkah and King Salman roads, are getting a facelift as part of the Vision 2030 goal of improving quality of life in the city. Dr. Fahad Al-Mana, a professor of Ornamental Plants, Gardens and Green Areas at King Saud University, told Arab News that native tree species being used for the project include Ziziphus spina-christi, Acacia gerrardii and Prosopis cineraria, commonly known as the ghaf tree. According to Al-Mana, the trees can survive in harsh desert conditions and will grow without intensive agricultural care. “Most of the tree species used in the planting of the Green Riyadh project are from a well-developed local environment with low agricultural service and care,” he said. Environmental conditions in Riyadh were taken into account during the tree selection process. The species can grow to a large size in only three years. “In some locations, they have moved large 3-year-old local trees that were taken care of in plant nurseries to new locations where they are growing successfully,” Al-Mana said. Green Riyadh will increase the amount of greenery in the city and augment the green cover in the Saudi capital with the planting of 7.5 million trees around the city’s main features and facilities. The project will reduce the average ambient temperature by 2 degrees Celsius and improve air quality, encouraging people to follow a healthier lifestyle by walking or cycling.

“The aim of planting trees in the streets is to provide shade and moderate the temperature, especially in summer, which contributes to the purification of air and reduces environmental pollution by protecting the city from sand storms, winds and dust. In addition, it gives an aesthetic view and the element of nature enters the city and nearby structures,” said Al-Mana. He added that trees, especially those planted in central street islands, must have long trunks and high branches to avoid hindering the movement of pedestrians and cars. The trunk must measure at least 3 to 4 meters and the size of the trees planted must be proportional to the width of the island. Al-Mana said green space in the city will increase from 5 percent to 9 percent by 2030. According to the Green Riyadh website, the project will maximize the use of recycled water in irrigation works by increasing usage from 90,000 cubic meters per day to more than 1 million cubic meters per day through the construction of a new recycled water network.
Al-Mana said the Green Riyadh project will also reduce carbon dioxide and impurity levels in the city.
“Based on experience, roads and streets without trees contain eight to 10 times the amount of dust compared with streets lined with trees on both sides,” he said.

Well, that’s good news. I just hope the city’s fragile water supply is able to cope with the increased demand. Currently this is sourced from aquifers under the city and augmented by salt water piped in from the coast and desalinated. 

  Financial districtjpg

Riyadh Metro Blue Line under construction with the Financial District in the left-centre background.

Another project that is being pushed ahead is the “completion” of the King Abdullah Financial District in northern Riyadh. Although it isn’t handily placed for the airport, some 33km from the international terminals, but on less densely trafficked roads (or 8 stops on the Yellow Line metro) it isn’t too far. The signature building is the PIF Tower, rising some 380m above the city roofs. There are another 58 large buildings in the zone, of all shapes and sizes. The architectural brief was for each one to be unique yet eco-friendly and functional. The project was started back in 2008, and when I arrived in Riyadh in early 2016 it had stalled and unfinished skeletal steel and concrete rose from the desert floor. With the G.20 coming, the project was restarted in 2018 and the zone is supposed to be fully functioning by now. I believe there is still a bit to go though. One building that I have been in is the Conference Centre which opened as a cinema in 2018, when they were reintroduced. The original plan was to have a monorail system linking the main buildings, but even though much of the infrastructure has been built, it has not been finished off, and informed sources suggest it might be repurposed to a different mode of transport, perhaps as an above-ground walking or cycling route.

Finally, if you know anyone who is looking for a few miles of unused red carpet, I can point them in the right direction.

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