How new urban planning is coming to the fore in the Middle East

From Dubai to Riyadh, new developments are aiming to better meet the needs of local residents and businesses

July 22, 2019

Countries in the Middle East are rethinking how they plan and design large-scale developments as they look to improve quality of life for their residents.

Several major projects are taking shape across the UAE and Saudi Arabia from the $500 billion futuristic mega city of Neom in Saudi Arabia to Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

All are exploring new ways to integrate more leisure and cultural facilities and improve living standards as well as encouraging a more joined-up approach between different parties in planning.

Greater blending of the leisure, entertainment and hospitality sectors with offices, retail and living space is an exciting prospect, says Dana Salbak, research associate for JLL MENA, and is a welcome step away from traditionally more siloed attitudes from developers to real estate sectors.

“Proximity to the workplace or to amenities – be that shopping or entertainment – is becoming a bigger element of master-planning,” says Salbak. “There’s a growing appreciation that links matter, both for citizens and for businesses, when planning these major projects.”

Changing needs

Many of the MENA region’s projects are part of longer-term strategies rather than reacting to shorter term trends.

"This is really down to demographics – the population of Saudi Arabia is expected to grow by over 8 million by 2030 and decisions are very much being informed by that," says Salbak.

Due for completion in 2025, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Park scheme in central Riyadh, part of the Saudi Vision 2030’s Quality of Life Program, will be the largest city park in the world – four times larger than New York’s Central Park.

In addition to bringing more green space to the city, it will also feature over 160 attractions across sports, art and culture including a golf course, six museums and a virtual reality centre.

Part of its selling is its public transport links in a city where most people drive. Meanwhile the addition of 12,000 homes, alongside hotels, retail and offices could change the way people see urban development, says Salbak pointing to recent efforts within Saudi Arabia to boost home ownership. “There’s significant demand for homes from the inside.”

“There’s a definite move away from the traditional gated residential villas to more urban living, particularly among young professionals with new tastes," she says. “Developers are taking note.”

Positioning for the future

While improving quality of life is major objective across the region, the target audience varies greatly.

In Saudi Arabia it’s largely locals while Dubai and Abu Dhabi are catering for sizeable expat communities. In June, the UAE launched a 12-year plan to improve quality of life across the country through 90 new projects designed to boost the physical, psychological and digital health of its population.

It’s starting from the strongest base in the region: Dubai and Abu Dhabi ranked top in the Middle East for quality of life, according to Mercer’s 2019 rankings which highlighted its significant rise in living standards amid improvements in infrastructure, and a welcoming environment for local and foreign businesses.

The UAE has also invested heavily in entertainment and recreational facilities with attractions such as the world’s biggest night market under construction and the Coca-Cola arena recently opening in Dubai. In Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Watan, a cultural landmark includes food and beverage and retail outlets, as well as a public library and installations.

Sports, culture and entertainment will, says Salbak, continue to feature strongly in new projects mooted for completion over the next decade.

Yet there’s still more to be done on creating affordable housing. In Dubai, the expat community is struggling with soaring rent which accounts for an average 41 percent of their income. However, only 20 percent of homes are affordable with knock on effects for quality of life.

Further infrastructure improvements are also a priority despite Riyadh’s metro line due for completion in 2021 and the recently completed Madinah to Jedda high-speed Haramian rail link.

"Connectivity is a major factor and is certainly being given greater attention," Salbak says. "It’s just one way the region is being reshaped and re-planned.”