National Geographic

Instant City

King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia, 22°24'00" N, 39°04'38" E

A gas flare burns on the horizon—a second sun. We walk past it. We slog by the silver dome of a roadside mosque. (Its parking lot features a spigot gushing refrigerated, ice-cold water for travelers.) We tug our camels past an oil-stained truck stop. Then, rippling like a hallucination in the distance: an archway of poured concrete. It juts 40 feet or more above the desert flats. It looks like the gateway to a fabled walled city from he Arabian Nights. Except there is no city—not yet, at least. And there is no wall. There is only sand dimpled by the six stilt-like legs of darkling beetles. And a hot, embalming wind.

This is the laboratory called King Abdullah Economic City.

One of Saudi Arabia’s biggest mega projects, KAEC—pronounced “cake”—is a brand-new metropolis being built, from scratch, on the barrens of the Hejaz coast. Its ambitions boggle. More than 50 square miles of factories, malls, universities, marinas, desalination plants, parks, hospitals, hotels, office blocks, and warehouses will sprout from this achingly desolate spot. Cost: the GDP of many small countries, of Latvia, of Luxembourg. ($27 billion? $80 billion? Estimates differ.) The largest industrial port on the Red Sea is being scooped out on its empty shore. Two million people could live here within 20 years. Some will commute to work in Venetian-style canals, aboard motor yachts.

You can walk up the austere eastern shore of the Red Sea and be startled by the familiar packaging of America’s long partnership with this conservative Islamic kingdom: the same gluttonous superhighways (even the white-on-green highway signage is identical); the same car-centric, round-curbed housing tracts; the same Pizza Huts; the shared diseases of affluence (Type 2 diabetes; ballooning waistlines on Saudis’ robes). But then the triumphal arches of KAEC appear. And you are reminded that you are not walking through Arizona.

Construction engineers from Pakistan are among the thousands of workers building a metropolis in the desert. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Construction engineers from Pakistan are among the thousands of workers building a metropolis in the desert. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“This is the biggest privately funded special economic zone ever built,” says Rayan Qutub, the friendly KAEC executive who takes me on a tour of his embryonic city. “Saudi Arabia needs more of our kind of challenges. Oil prices go up and down. We’ve been through hard times before because of that. We can’t always depend on government spending.”

Qutub’s minivan speeds us along silent boulevards. Palm trees of identical size hem these ghostly strips of asphalt, screening the vast alkali desert beyond. Scattered here and there: an international school, a luxury hotel, a strip of restaurants. A KAEC patrol car, lights flashing, leads the way. It is parting the instant city’s still non-existent traffic.

The monumental—often inhumanly so—scale of Saudi Arabia’s building projects reminds me of a long vanished era: of Brasilia, the pre-planned capital of Brazil, or of the heroic age of public and private works in the United States. (The Tennessee Valley Authority, the golden age of early skyscrapers of New York.) That bluff confidence, that sense of control, still lingers in Saudi Arabia. Qutub ticks off the corporations buying into KAEC’s vision in the desert: Pfizer, Mars, Toys R Us, Saudi Airlines. He notes in passing, apologetically, that construction is behind schedule because of the global recession: the city’s glass office towers and golfing villas aren’t built. (Other instant cities are being sketched out in the kingdom.)

I watch a promotional video at KAEC’s headquarters.

What is striking is not the sleek, futuristic design of the city. Not its layered subterranean parking. Not the millions of shipping containers that may one day flood through its computerized port. No. It is the people. The artist has depicted Saudi men and women mingling freely in elegant outdoor spaces. There appears to be little gender segregation. It is a vision of social mixing, of liberality, that exists today largely inside the walled compounds of foreign workers in the kingdom. KAEC and other projects like it occupy the murky frontier between the forces of modernization and religious orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia.

“We are not a Dubai,” Qutub tells me, carefully. “Dubai is an international city. Like Singapore. We are a Saudi city, but one that looks outward. We want to respect who we are, our traditions, but be open in the way the Hejaz was always open, open to the sea.”

What will change? What will endure? What does modernity even mean in Saudi Arabia?

My guide Mohamad Banounah, my cameleer Awad Omran, and I walk past yet another noisy truck stop. It is after sunset. From the dazzling fluorescent lights of the gas station, three men walk out into the darkness to where we stand, calming the nervous camels. They are men in robes. They hold out their hands, palms up, in gesture of invitation, of welcome. They are village men—not rich. They cannot see us clearly. But we are rahalla—travelers. They are inviting into their homes to break bread in the night.

En route again -- pausing to water the camels at a Chinese laborer's camp on the trail north. Photograph by Paul Salopek

En route again—pausing to water the camels at a Chinese laborers’ camp on the trail north. Photograph by Paul Salopek

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Brenda
    September 1, 2013

    I just heard about your walk on the radio program “On the Media” a production of NPR. Your walk is inspiring!

  2. Margaret M.
    September 1, 2013

    Paul, as usual an interesting post. I’m wondering if there is a time-table for completion of this project. I suppose there is not such thing as completing it? What kinds of things have been built so far?
    Thanks again for sharing this incredible journey.

    • Paul Salopek
      September 6, 2013

      20 years, Margaret. The way Saudi Arabia is growing, though, the entire coast for 250 miles north of Jeddah will likely be a single corridor of urban and industrial development. Where the water will come from (desalinating the sea is expensive) is an open question.

  3. Joe Durham
    September 1, 2013

    How much food do your camels require each day?

    • Paul Salopek
      September 6, 2013

      About a hand’s-width of alfalfa and one liter of grain. We occasionally find patches of sparse dry grass growing in the wadis. This helps.

  4. Stephen Moyse
    September 1, 2013

    I look at your progress at least once a week, and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of you walking out of Eden. (I spent the first decade of my life in India and Beirut.)

    Thank you for your work.

  5. Jerzy PL
    September 2, 2013

    How amazing it is. Thank You again Paul for sharing all of these information and photographs with us. Nice project. A little expensive for my taste though. Would be lot easier to introduce some social mixing and reduce gender segregation in existing cities…

  6. HikerBob
    September 6, 2013

    That this project exists boggles the mind. I can only imagine how it felt to stand before this model.

  7. Zuhair Murshid
    September 7, 2013

    It is good thinking to do such a trip. The future of KACity is promising

  8. Linda Hoernke
    September 9, 2013

    I have been away and am getting caught up on your writings. A good point made above….water usage. I also wonder how a city that large will handle sewage. I have read it is a real behind the scenes problem in Dubai~~

  9. Melissa Jenks
    March 5, 2014

    Wondering if you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King? Set in KAEC for the most part–it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts about the book after walking through.

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