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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Metro Cometh

October 24, 2014

Riyadh Metro

Riyadh is nothing if not cosmopolitan. Every day this week I have spent the journey to my client speaking a different language with Kamal, my Sudanese driver. On Monday it was Spanish.On Tuesday it was Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. On Wednesday we spoke Finnish and on Thursday Irish. Plus a little English and Arabic, of course.

Kamal has become my friend. He speaks in an operatic baritone that rarely fails to break into wheezy laughter at the slightest excuse. We have nicknames for each other. He calls me Sheikh Sleep because on the 45 minute journey I rarely fail to close my eyes at some stage, and I’m always moaning about how ridiculously early we have to set off from my hotel. I call him Sheikh Yalla (yalla means hurry in Arabic), because he’s always hustling me to get moving when he comes to collect me at the end of the day.

The reason for our multi-lingual mornings is Silva and Hani. Silva is a flirtatious Lebanese radio presenter on one of the Arabic stations, and Hani is her rather gormless sidekick. Every day this week they have been giving us lessons in the aforesaid languages.

So picture Kamal and me, weaving through Riyadh’s ridiculously dense traffic, risking life and limb as lunatic drivers overtake us from either side of the highway, counting from one to ten in Finnish, each trying to outdo the other with our extravagant interpretations of the Finnish/Lebanese accent so sweetly enunciated by the lovely Silva.

Our car is one of an estimated 18 million on the roads of Saudi Arabia. Most of them are to be found in the urban areas – Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and the Eastern Province. In a population of 30 million, of which 9 million are foreign workers, most of whom can’t afford a car, that’s a lot of cars. Especially when 30% of the Saudi population are under 15 and therefore – theoretically – are not allowed to drive, and when 50% of the rest are women, who are also not allowed to drive. If you exclude the elderly and the rural population, and that’s still a lot of cars and a lot of male drivers in cities like Riyadh.

It’s not uncommon for some Saudi families to own five or even six cars. One for Dad, one for Mum (complete with driver of course), and one for each of the older sons who are not yet married and away.

So it’s not surprising that the roads are gridlocked in the mornings. And every year it seems to have been getting worse. OK, it’s not quite like Lagos yet, as a Lebanese guy who has spent the last four years in Nigeria’s capital pointed out the other day. But it must be a pain for those who have to spend an hour or two every morning on the main highways into the city year on year.

All that is about to change, or so we’re told. Outside my hotel, which is on Olaya Street, one of central Riyadh’s main business thoroughfares, our side of the road is blocked off by massive red and white barriers formed into contraflows and U-turns – elegant geometrical swirls that from the coffee shop on the first floor look rather like concrete crop circles.

The arrival of the blocks adds at least ten minutes to my journey. But no matter. This is the beginning of one of those mega-projects beloved of Saudi Arabia and its wealthy neighbours in the Gulf: the Riyadh Metro.

The statistics are on a grand scale. 6 lines, 78 stations, 170km of overland and underground track, $22 billion cost and 30,000 workers who will beaver away to complete the project in four years. Yes, you read that correctly – four years. Not long when you consider that the vast majority of London’s 270 Underground stations and 402km of track took 50 years to build. Obviously technology and construction techniques have moved on since work on the London Underground started in 1854. But still, it’s an ambitious schedule.

As this article in the Arab News highlights, constructing the new Metro will not simply be a matter of sinking a few tunnels, laying the track and building the stations. Many of the buildings that are likely to sit above the tunnels were not constructed to the highest standards, and for some of them the architectural drawings will be long gone. What will be the effect of all that boring underneath houses built on sand?

Though I’m not an engineer, common sense suggests to me that four years for the whole project is a stretch target unlikely to be achieved. If they complete at least one of the lines within the period, that would be a significant enough achievement.

More to the point, will Riyadh’s shiny new Metro entice urban Saudis away from their beloved cars? For a number of reasons, I’m not sure.

The first challenge is that even with 78 stations, the Metro is unlikely to be within walking distance of every home in the city. Many Saudis have inherited the American habit of driving to the convenience store a few hundred yards away rather than walk. To an extent, this is understandable given the extreme summer temperatures. In July and August the thermometer can hit 40C early in the morning and up to 50C in the middle of the day. So if you need to get into your car to reach the station, it’s very tempting to keep driving.

The second issue is the Saudis’ famously protective attitude towards their women. Will the average father or husband be relaxed about their loved ones jumping on a crowded metro line full of men of varying nationality and social status? In the trains themselves that problem could be solved with women-only carriages. The buses have had female compartments for decades. But what about the stations? They may be new and shiny when the Metro opens, but will they be crawling with low life later on?

Then there’s the walk to wherever you’re going when you arrive at the nearest station. No doubt low-status expatriate workers will be happy to walk to the office, construction site or mall, especially if their employer no longer sees a need to provide them with transportation. But will that apply to the average Saudi? Or will we see the station approaches clogged with cars waiting to drive passengers to the doorstep of their destinations? In London, few people object to a ten minute walk through a leafy suburb to get to the tube station, and then another short stroll along the well-ordered pavements of the West End or the City to get to the office. But the Riyadh sidewalks – if they exist at all – are a different proposition. All kinds of obstacles, from potholes to concrete barriers and half-built steps, and sometimes no pavement at all, which requires you to brave the oncoming traffic and weave around badly-parked cars.

No doubt the city’s urban planners are aware of all these issues. And they will be aware that public transportation is a sensitive ecosystem. Safe sidewalks, a regular bus service – Riyadh is not blessed in this respect either – and perhaps congestion charges to deter motorists from clogging the commercial districts at peak time – all form part of a complex, inter-dependent equation.

Another factor is that every year the number of Saudis of drivable age is increasing. Despite the 8400 road deaths and 38,000 serious injuries expected in 2014, pressure on the road system will intensify. More cars, more roads, more pollution – Riyadh’s planners are facing a moving target. And if the decline in the oil price becomes a long-term reality, how many more huge capital projects will the country be able to afford over the next few years? Riyadh is not the only city that needs a Metro. The traffic situation in Jeddah is as bad if not worse.

If costs need to be cut, the concern must be that compromises may result in half-measures. That some essential components of the transport ecosystem will be delayed or sacrificed, which will mean that those components that do get finished – such as Metros – will not yield all the benefits that they should.

I wish the Metro project well, though I suspect that if I’m still visiting Riyadh in four years’ time, Kamal and I will be swapping platitudes in Basque, Japanese and Serbo-Croat, and Silva will still be soothing the frustrations of thousands of motorists crawling towards their offices. But maybe I’m wrong – I’ve learned over decades never to underestimate the Saudis.

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