Cityscape Global took place this week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for the first time ever, with some 300,000 visitors taking part. Robin Marriott was there and reports.
Though many real estate professionals have the title head of EMEA, seldom do we feel inclined to talk about the Middle East. Or if we do, it is about investors such as ADIA and ADIC and their activities in Europe.
But taking place over four days this week, an event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has been showcasing the mind-blowing giga projects planned for this country, which is already attracting so much attention for its ambitions in sport, most notably taking control of world golf, and football since the likes of Christiano Ronaldo agreed to play in the Saudi league.
The expected final total number of visitors to Cityscape Global 2023 - which began on Sunday and ended on Thursday - is to reach 300,000 when the counting is done, making it the largest real estate exhibition of its kind in the world.
Cityscape Global has been going since 2002 and last year was hosted in Dubai, but the organisers have been convinced that Saudi Arabia is now where it’s at. And for very good reason. While Dubai seems to be slightly losing its shine, the KSA is in the ascendancy.
On the first day – Sunday September 10 – construction and infrastructure contracts worth a combined 65 billion Saudi riyals SAR (€14 bn) were announced by the likes of the National Housing Company and PIF-owned ROSHN, which has projects in no fewer than 10 Saudi cities.
Having attended all four days, it felt like Saudi Arabia has become the centre of the world for residential and commercial real estate development.
In a forthcoming issue of PropertyEU we will bring you insights from the event, including interviews with major players.
We spoke to many exhibitors, visitors and even local Saudis working at the event, which has been massively advertised and is a source of national pride.
Apart from the amazing stands showcasing incredible projects such as The Line, and the endless processions of Saudi dignataries amd VIPS including Ministers, what stuck was the youthful energy and participation of many women as the country slowly opens us. Women are now taking up C suite positions at giga project developers and indeed state-owned tourism and investment bodies.
French artist, Olivier Pron, who has been working on the marina element of The Line (which was probably the most visited and photographed stand among very stiff competition) told PropertyEU: 'For me, what has struck me is the enthusiasm.'
'It’s really important to be here I would say for KSA, but I mean every single young person here is enthusiastic. KSA is a young country. I don’t know the exact number but something like 60% of the people are less than 75 years old. So, what’s remarkable is that you have that energy. There is a contrast because in Europe things are slowing down. But not here.'
In fact, Saudi Arabia has an extremely young population. Of the country’s 24 million people, 43% are under the age of 15. In other words, youths and children represent more than two-thirds of the Saudi population.
As if to underline the point, on Day Two a group of students visited the exhibition stand of KAFD (King Abdullah Financial District).
Set in the heart of Riyadh, the project consists of more than 83 buildings and is reputed to be the largest LEED certified financial centre in the world. First established in 2008, it was bought by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) in 2018 and is an early manifestation of Vision 2030. The youthful visitors took in as much information as they could when they received a tour.
The enthusiasm of younger delegates at the exhibition has been picked up by many others.
Soumia Masmoudi, an architect from Algeria who has worked on projects including in Qatar, and is one of the speakers at Cityscape Global, observed the same thing.
She said: 'What is interesting - and it was similar in Qatar – is how easy it is to involve the young with the vision. They take it right away and are proud of it. You can talk to the older generation as well, but when the young Saudi people speak, they are proud and they also take it personally, and they are happy to see people coming from all around the world at Cityscape.'
'It is very nice because they give vision to the younger generation, and by living in these new cities – which are huge – they are making a link between the land and a passion.'
There is a development here at the show called the Mohammed bin Salman Nonprofit City. This “visionary zone for young people” is a development where commercial activity is deliberately NOT the objective. Instead, other land uses are being provided, most notably education via new schools from elementary to high school alongside clusters of new residential communities. One visitor was delighted. By living here, she will effectively be financially supported by the Government in order to follow her passion in whatever field that might be, including art or some other creative industry.
Nonprofit City will be the first non-profit city of its kind which will contribute to achieving the goals of Mohammed bin Salman Foundation in supporting innovation, entrepreneurship and creating future leaders through youth training. It is located in a part of Riyadh close to the diplomatic quarter.
In May, the city signed an agreement with Le Cordon Bleu Arabia Educational Institute for Culinary Arts, one of the world's leading centers of learning within the Le Cordon Bleu network of culinary arts and hospitality management institutes.
NEOM’s Pron referred to another development just one and a half hours away from The Line – Trojena. This is a brand-new ski resort 2 km above sea level where the Kingdom is either going to supplement the insufficient snow by importing it or will generate snow themselves – a possibility due to plenty of water.
Pron also notices the way people have been flowing into parts of the exhibition halls looking to put down deposits down on the next flat or house in Riyadh or somewhere else in Saudi Arabia. 'It’s incredible. Like it is non-stop.'
H.E. Majid Al-Hogail, Saudi Minister of Municipal & Rural Affairs & Housing stopped by Nonprofit City along with his entourage, seemingly satisfied. One of the project’s representatives said shortly after the visit: “It is all about education, knowledge, sports and to develop the community.'
The schools are already finished, but the whole project is slated to be completed by 2023 in accordance with the Kingdom’s 2023 Vision.
The representative himself was surprised at the breadth of visitors at Cityscape Global. 'Actually, I wasn’t expecting so many people. I mean, okay it is not sports or something like that, it is real estate. But I have seen people from all around the world, even Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE, which for us is not something normal.'
'I am kind of surprised. I was expecting foreign investors, certainly, but not necessarily from Gulf countries because there are similar exhibitions. But this is something global.'
Sports is growing in importance in the Kingdom. But it needs to act to help its population become healthier. KSI is among the top ten countries with the highest prevalence of diabetes mellitus. and so, health and physical recreation is being pushed up the agenda.
David Grover, group CEO of developer ROSHN, picked up on the theme.
He noted: ‘Going to the gym is not something that has been popular in the past.’ ROSHN’s answer is to begin providing gyms at its developments, which are becoming much more mixed use.
At Cityscape, no-one could have failed to notice Sports Boulevard, an epic project boasting the largest linear park in the world connecting Riyadh from the west to the east exceeding 135 km. The emphasis is on a healthy lifestyle including cycling and walking alongside an arts and entertainment district. There will be 4 million m2 of green and open space.
Meanwhile, at another stand is the new Ski Village resort at Trojena, where a young representative explained more about how the resort – which rises 2,400 metres - is geographically close to the border with Jordan and Egypt.
Perhaps visitors from outside the region would not know of Saudia Arabia’s mountain range, much less of a ski resort which is clearly a first for the Kingdom.
The young representative smiled, and explained there was not normally enough snow to go skiing in the mountain range, so the company was working on practical solutions such as importing it. By the way, she pointed out, the development includes the largest artificial lake.
Some of the key figures are 36 km of ski slopes, 406 hotel rooms, 725 apartments. 'During the winter season, Ski Village becomes a hot bed of alpine action with three months of snow cover on the slopes for skiers and snowboarders of all levels,” proclaims the advert. 'For the summer season, cool clean air transforms the place so that any activity is possible, welcoming reveller and thrill seekers from all walks of life.'
But it is not just sports gaining attention of young people but also other industries such as technology and media.
Back from Dubai
Musab Almardhi is a perfect example of how there has been a swing back from other countries such as Dubai to Saudi Arabia for attractive work opportunities.
He is a young Saudi executive media producer at Charisma Productions and also part of the Cityscape Media team.
He studied TV production when he graduated from college but left for Dubai for better opportunities and stayed for seven years. Now he is back.
‘A lot of people of my generation moved to Dubai because there were not so many opportunities in Saudi when it came to TV production at the highest level.'
But the Crown Prince was a gamechanger in 2015 for TV and multimedia production. MBC Group, the Midde East and North Africa’s largest TV broadcasting station, moved its headquarters from Dubai to Riyadh last year.
Said Almardhi: 'The opportunities here are now better than anywhere else. Let’s say it is the opposite wave now. It used to be that Saudi people would leave for TV production in Dubai, but now it is the other way around.’
The Middle East is taking note of al of this. And to be honest, so should Europe where there is inevitably scepticism that anything will get built. But projects are indeed getting completed and others have started.
On Day 3, three CEOs took the main stage on Tuesday morning representing some of the biggest and most prestigious investments and projects underway across the KSA.
Dr Fahad bin Mushayt, CEO of Saudi Tourism Investment Company (ASFAR, a PIF subsidiary), Jerry Inzerillo CEO of Diriyah Gate Development Authority, and David Grover, CEO of ROSHN, spoke of challenges ahead, but mainly of optimism and the sense of responsibility to help Saudi in its quest to meet objectives via its national Vison 2030 plan.
Inzerillo said his company was behind the $63 bn giga project at Diriyah, the “birthplace of the Kingdom”.
'We feel a profound responsibility. But what’s unique about today is it is no longer conceptual or theoretical. What will happen - and it started in 2022 - is we will open assets, break grown on new assets, and announce new assets with anticipation of substantial completion and have it in time for the World Expo 2030'.
The three CEOs said they encountered scepticism outside the region that Saudi’s ambitious projects would truly become reality.
ROSHN’s Grover said the developer was working in 10 cites at the same time. 'That brings different challenges. First of all, there are different architectural styles around the Kingdom. It’s really important we respect those and that we create communities that blend in with existing culture. Also, one of the challenges is bringing international best practice.'
'But everybody is rising to the challenge. And the jump in quality of design and building concepts compared to maybe just three or four years ago is worlds apart. It’s phenomenal how much the industry is moving forward.'
'Three years ago, we hadn’t put a shovel in the ground. But now we are off, and by the end of the year we’ll have 3,00o-plus families living at our first site.'
Tourism driving employment
Tourism is meant to boost Saudi employment as the Kingdom steers away from an oil-based economy. Its target is to attract some 100 million visitors by 2023.
The CEO of Saudi Tourism Investment Company said: 'We will be announcing our first projects.' Encouraging international partners, he proclaimed: 'Please come!'
Inzerillo said Diriyah was going to make the birthplace of the Kingdom one of the great gathering places of the world. But it is doing so using local talent while in keeping with heritage. Eight five million mud bricks are being used so that modernity can co-exist with heritage.
And on employees, he said: 'We are taking very enthusiastic, highly educated, great young Saudi men and women and giving them a great opportunity for the present and their future.'
The youthful nation has been a talking point at Cityscape Global, along with opportunities for Saudi women.
ROSHN’s Grover said it had 60 nationalities in its workforce, including a significant percentage of women at C-suite level. It also has an active graduate programme for women returning to work that last year attracted 24,000 applicants and therefore was vastly oversubscribed.
With Saudi encouraging international real estate, tourism, leisure, sports, tech, sustainability, and educational players to come forward, the potential for PPS is in the spotlight.
On Tuesday, the audience at the show’s Property Portfolio Forum were told public-private partnerships were “the best route” in the hospitality and leisure sector.
Shafiq Akbar, CEO of IMARAT, Graana.com & Agency 21, said Saudi’s national strategy 2030 talked of attracting 100 million visitors annually.
'Look at the magnitude and the $1 trillion of investment as Saudi starts to get a plan and structures in place to execute these plans with people aligned with the vision.
Everybody's hopeful, everybody's excited, and as far as PPP is concerned, I think this is the best route. Yes, it is obviously supported by the Public Investment Fund, but it needs investments from the private sector, and banks as well. Where Saudi has been very successful is in attracting the best players in the market.'
Day Two saw the same surge of Saudis explore options to acquire homes in the new developments showcased. There were also numerous MoUs signed.
The roll call of organisations putting pen to paper on commitments included Madr Investment, Munjz, Nawat Investment Company, and the Holy Makkah Municipality.
Riyadh office openings
Meanwhile, it is clear international firms are opening offices in Riyadh to capture opportunities. API Global, a UK property investment and residential property specialist is among them. Michael Leighton, CEO and founder, said Riyadh will be the firm’s second city in the Middle East after opening in Dubai in 2013.
Said Leighton: 'The opportunity is incredible. What my team and I have seen here is amazing. Everybody is so forthcoming, willing to learn, and they want to have a conversation - they want to learn about offshore investment. So, yes, we are really positive.'
Aedas, the global architect has also decided to open an office in Riyadh. Global principal, Frank McGoldrick, said: 'Obviously, the Saudi market is burgeoning. We have been present in the Middle East for two decades, initially in Dubai. With Vision 2023, there is a massive amount of work going on. We are blessed to be involved with many of the high-profile projects, for example Ski Village in Trojena with NEOM, which is quite a unique project. We have also been master planning at Mecca and have a lot of Middle East employees and things are going so positively that we are in the throes of opening an office in Riyadh.'
Check out a forthcoming issue of PropertyEU for much more from Cityscape Global