One can be forgiven, having never been to Saudi Arabia before, to not fully understand the extent of construction that is occurring at this point in time in the country. In fact the first thing a new arrival will see when leaving King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh is the phenomenal amount of construction taking place to develop Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Women. To create some kind of comparison, many people will have either seen or at least be aware of the amount of construction that is occurring in the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. In Riyadh the construction effort is of a similar nature, except that instead of building up they are building out. In fact Riyadh only has two notable skyscrapers in the city, Kingdom Tower and Faisaliah Tower, separated by about four city blocks from each other in downtown Olaya. These two towers form a prominent part of the Riyadh sky line, which actually makes navigating quite simple as one can always tell which part of the city they are in in relation to where they see the towers.
I won’t speculate on the number of cranes in the city (I have heard estimates of up to 50% of the cranes in the world, though I am dubious of such a high number) but I can see three when I look out the kitchen window in my apartment at the university. If you imagine that most people living in the city can probably see at least two cranes when they look out their windows then you might understand how universal these pieces of equipment are here. One of the problems with such ubiquitous construction is that as a resident of Riyadh I am constantly finding myself in the midst of a construction site. For instance, King Saud University has been staging a massive expansion of the university facilities, most notably their two hospitals. As my housing is located behind at the university the only way for me to get to the main road to catch a taxi to work is to walk directly through the hospital construction site. This has caused an interesting conundrum for me as during my upbringing in Australia I was taught unequivocally never to set foot into a construction site without first needing to be there and secondly upholding the strict occupational health and safety (OH&S;) regulations required for entry to that site.
Now I have been known to have a whinge from time to time about what sometimes seems like OH&S; gone mad in the Australian workplace. Sometimes it feels akin to baby-proofing a house, yet we’re all adults and know that you’re not meant to run with scissors or touch the hot stove top. Sure, there’s always a good reason… in the event a cataclysmic tidal wave it just may be that electrical cable on the floor under your desk that’ll be your undoing. Then you’ll be wishing you’d tied that cable up the to back of your desk… right? Anyway, now that I’m in Riyadh, where safety sometimes factors a little lower on the list than we’re used to in Australia I’ve found myself turning into the clip board carrying safety officer I’ve always despised. That bundle of cables lying across the floor in a common walking space strikes an sudden fear into my heart that those around me are not so familiar with. In reality the worst that could probably happen is someone would accidentally unplug a computer and incite the wrath of a colleague who hadn’t bothered to save the document they were working on. Hardly the cataclysmic scenario of death and destruction that’s been drummed into us for such a long time while we were growing up.
That’s not to say that OH&S; doesn’t have its place in society. It surprises me that maybe one in five people on a construction site here can be seen wearing hard hats, people dig up roads with jack hammers without wearing eye or hearing protection and if there’s a construction site in your way, be it a building site or a torn up sidewalk, then sometimes your only real option is to take your safety into your own hands and power on through. Most people in Riyadh can attest that its almost impossible to walk a city block without having to at least once navigate around a construction site. I don’t know how many serious injuries or lives could be saved from a higher level of safety but I imagine that a number would. Unfortunately, most of the lives lost are probably foreign workers who’s family are back in their country of origin so don’t have a very loud voice against these problems.
One thing I’ve found to be quite fascinating is the sheer speed and volume of construction that takes place here. One day you’ll be driving down the street and a building that was there yesterday will have been transformed into a pile of rubble, the next day all that will remain is a gaping hole in the ground. Six months later the skeleton of a new building will have replaced the old one. New malls open, hospitals and educational facilities are springing up in every corner of the city. My own hospital is building a whole new facility which was foundations when I started here and now towers six stories into the sky. Its a wonder that the city has the population to support such a number of new facilities.
People who were in Riyadh in the 1980s have amazing stories to tell about the size of the city at that time. Areas that we now consider inner-city were at that time the city limits. In the next 20 years who knows how big this city will become, but anyone living here will know for a fact that construction doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.