Middle East megacities: the future of the Gulf

Vast unoccupied desert land and incredible wealth mean that Gulf countries are building huge cities entirely from scratch.

Peter Iantorno September 7, 2015

With great swathes of vacant desert land and seemingly even greater financial muscle to build upon them, plans for modern megacities built completely from scratch are popping up all over the Gulf.

Always at the forefront of investment, Saudi Arabia is currently building a brand new city that, when finished, will be bigger than Washington DC.

Expected to span some 168 sq km along the Red Sea Coast, located north of Jeddah and conveniently in between Medina and Mecca, the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) will house two million people and cost an estimated $100 billion. Currently being developed by property giant Emaar, the ambitious project is set to be finished by 2035.

KAEC Saudi Arabia.jpg Although it won't be completely finished until 2035, around 50,000 people are expected to move into Saudi's KAEC in the next five years.

And Saudi isn’t the only Middle East country with grand ideas for new megacities. Fellow GCC country the UAE has a whole host of plans to add to its already burgeoning developments, including Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City and the newly renamed Dubai South.

Even non-GCC countries are getting in on the act, as earlier this year Egypt announced that it would build a brand new $45 billion, 700 sq km capital city to the east of current capital Cairo, with the help of $12 billion worth of funding from Kuwait, Saudi and the UAE.

One major development that is already well on the road to completion is Qatar’s proposed city of Lusail. Once finished, Lusail will cover an area of around 38 sq km and be home to some 200,000 residents, who will have a choice of four exclusive manmade islands as well as residential areas on the mainland.

Expected to cost in the region of $45 billion, the new city is central to the country’s plan for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and part of the development includes the massive Lusail Iconic Stadium, which will have a capacity in excess of 86,000 people.

Lusail Iconic Stadium.jpg Qatar's Lusail Iconic Stadium is already being earmarked to host the final of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The manpower needed for construction on such a grand scale is so massive that Qatar is even building brand new ‘cities’ for the sole purpose of housing the migrant labourers needed to build the infrastructure.

In May this year the country announced that by the end of 2016 seven purpose-built cities will be completed, including one that will accommodate 70,000 people and include a 24,000-seater cricket stadium. In all, the plans are set to house 258,000 workers (around a quarter of Qatar’s migrant labourer population).

Despite the constant controversy and criticism of Qatar’s methods, it does, at least appear that the development will run to schedule and be in place ahead of its 2022 World Cup deadline.

Lusail Qatar Seef.jpg Construction work is already well underway in Lusail.

However, as we have seen in so many other proposed projects, with such incredibly ambitious plans set to cost such extravagant sums of money, all it takes is a slight change in the financial climate and suddenly the whole project can hit the buffers.

Take Kuwait’s proposed super-development, Madinat Al Hareer (meaning ‘Silk City’), for example. First announced back in 2006, the project was planned to cover an area of 250 sq km, housing 700,000 people and creating 450,000 new jobs, plus it was to include the Mubarak Al Kabir Tower, which at a spectacular 1,001 metres tall, would dwarf the Burj Khalifa.

Estimated costs have ballooned since the project was announced, with figures ranging from $94 billion to a whopping $132 billion, and as a result of the spiralling expense, the development was put on hold in May 2014.

City of Silk Kuwait.jpg Kuwait's 'Silk City' has been plagued with issues since it was announced in 2006.

Since then Mohammed Jassim Khalid Al Marzouq, Chairman of Tamdeen Group, which was originally set to take on the ambitious project, has insisted that the project will still be going ahead but will now be led by the government, yet no expected completion date has been set.

The uncertainty surrounding the Madinat Al Hareer project is far from an isolated incident when it comes to ambitious developments failing in the Middle East.

However, while there are always going to be ill-fated projects that don’t last the course, in a part of the world where vast desert dominates the landscape and incredible wealth fuels the fire of ambition, the rise of the Middle East megacity seems almost inevitable.