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Riyadh can become a global city – with a little more effort

When it comes to business travel, the city remains a trying place to negotiate

cars in Riyadh Reuters/Fahad Shadeed
Private car hire is the default in Riyadh, but the quality of vehicle is variable and not all drivers are knowledgeable of traffic conditions

As the kingdom’s capital and hub of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy, Riyadh has all the potential in the world to become a world-class global city, right up there with New York, London and Shanghai.

The challenge, it seems to me, having spent the past week at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum in the city, is that Riyadh’s urban policymakers are not moving fast enough to match the ambitions of the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Mohamed Bin Salman.

Unless a visitor makes elaborate and expensive arrangements on transport and accommodation, Riyadh remains a trying city in which to do business.

The FII 2023 event was, by all objective consensus, the most successful of the seven investment summits that have been staged since 2017. Full disclosure required here: I was there as a media consultant to the FII communications team under Princess Reem Al Saud.

This is not meant as a review of FII7, but just one point is worth making. While much Western media commentary focused on how the events in Israel and Gaza were somehow “dominating” the proceedings, I found the opposite to be true.

There was plenty of investment business being done for sure – witness the $18bn of deals announced during the event – but in my view the ongoing regional geopolitical tragedy added a tension and an excitement to the discussions in the cavernous halls of the King Abdulaziz International Conference Centre.

They certainly provided the most controversial moment of the three days: the remarks from the plenary stage by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, which caused much outrage for many. But any serious global forum must expect, even welcome, a bit of real controversy.

Transport troubles

Back to Riyadh. The excellent organisation within the confines of the Ritz Carlton complex, and even in the approaches to it (a source of much grumbling by attendees over the years), were not always matched in the rest of the city.

In a conurbation with no public transport system to speak of – the expensive metro network cannot be opened a moment too soon – private car hire is the default.

Unless you’re willing to match the energy billionaire I heard of who spent $10,000 for a driver and SUV for the three days, that in effect means Uber, Careem and Riyadh municipal taxis.

Maybe I’m spoiled by the quality and efficiency of those services in Dubai, but their Riyadh equivalents fall short. Quality of vehicle is variable, and the drivers are often not helpful or knowledgeable of traffic conditions.

One I hired used his mobile to listen to music rather than following Google maps, predictably getting lost.

Uber and Careem have almost been used as an instrument of economic policy, with a law a few years back that all drivers have to be Saudi nationals. This is good for local employment, of course, but negates the skills of an experienced and motivated expat driver community.

After being let down on early morning pick-ups by Uber and missing important meetings, I decided I had to hire a private driver for one especially important event. Effei (from Pakistan but 25 years in the kingdom) was impressively on time at the crack of dawn in a gleaming black 7 Series BMW.

We received a respectful wave-through from the Royal Guard on duty at the Ritz entrance, as they told other FII delegates to get out of their Uber Camrys and walk.

King Salman International Airport Saudi Arabia Riyadh cityFoster + Partners/Cover Images via Reuters Connect
The proposed King Salman International Airport cannot come too soon if Riyadh is to position itself as a true global destination

When it was time to leave Riyadh, I used Effei again to get to King Khalid International Airport, which was where a whole new raft of trials began.

The last flight out on FlyDybai on Thursday evening would not normally be my first choice, but in FII week I had little alternative. The situation was made worse by rainstorms in Dubai that day, which had caused big delays to the schedule.

But it’s a measure of airport efficiency how it deals with an unexpected disruption, and again Riyadh fell short.

Long queues for check-in, bureaucratic fussiness at passport control and baggage check, and inadequate facilities airside for such a large number of passengers made for an exhausting few hours in the early morning after a long day.

One question in particular puzzles me about King Khalid airport: why no airline lounges? The Emirates Lounge is a comfortable haven virtually everywhere in the world, but in Riyadh there is no option except the spartan Plaza Premium Lounge.

Once again, the Saudi capital is working on it, and the new King Salman airport cannot come a moment too soon. But that moment is several years off.

Riyadh has all the potential to be a true global city. But until it irons out some basic logistics, it will remain that: mere potential.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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