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Monday, March 3, 2008

Saudi Arabia's vision of the future

The Construction Site Called Saudi Arabia

RABIGH, Saudi Arabia — THE alarm bell sounded the end of the lunch break here one November afternoon, and suddenly thousands of workers — on foot, on bicycles and in buses — streamed in, seemingly from out of nowhere, and jolted this huge construction site to life.

The King Abdullah Economic City, shown in rendering, is being championed by the Saudi monarch as a way to handle an expected population boom.

Amid a forest of cranes, towers and beams rising from the desert, more than 38,000 workers from China, India, Turkey and beyond have been toiling for two years in unforgiving conditions — often in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees — to complete one of the world’s largest petrochemical plants in record time.

By the end of the year, this massive city of steel at the edge of the Red Sea will take its place as a cog of globalization: plastics produced here will be used to make televisions in Japan, cellphones in China and thousands of other products to be sold in the United States and Europe. Construction costs at the plant, which spreads over eight square miles, have doubled to $10 billion because of shortages in materials and labor. The amount of steel being used is 10 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower.

Size isn’t the only consideration. The project is Saudi Arabia’s boldest bet yet that this oil-rich kingdom can transform itself into an industrial powerhouse. The plant is part of a $500 billion investment program to build new cities, create millions of jobs and diversify the economy away from petroleum exports over the next two decades.

The kingdom’s lofty economic goals would have been unthinkable without the surge in energy prices that has filled the coffers of oil producers. Oil prices have quadrupled since 2002 and reached $100 a barrel in New York this month.

Persian Gulf countries earned $1.5 trillion in oil revenue from 2002 to 2006, twice as much as in the previous five-year period, according to the Institute of International Finance, a global association of banks that is based in Washington. As the top exporter, Saudi Arabia has been the main beneficiary.

Despite all the recent headlines about Middle East investors bailing out troubled American banks like Citigroup, a growing share of today’s petrodollars are staying at home to finance megaprojects like Petro Rabigh, analysts say. That money is financing the biggest economic boom in a generation, helping to build not only the high-rises of Dubai, where the world’s tallest tower is going up, but also telecommunications networks, roads and universities throughout the Middle East.

Abu Dhabi is planning to spend close to $1 billion for a new museum with the help of the Louvre, in Paris. Dubai’s latest grandiose idea is to build a small-scale replica of the French city of Lyon, complete with residential housing, a museum, a culinary school and a soccer club.

In Saudi Arabia, Riyadh looks like a boom town: sprawling over 40 miles, it is teeming with shopping malls, electronics stores and luxury boutiques. But while times are good today, many Saudis realize that their country is locked in a race against time to create industries that produce more than just oil in order to keep a young and growing population employed. The kingdom, which has a population of 24.5 million, including nearly 7 million foreigners, has what one analyst called a “human time bomb.” About 40 percent of Saudis are under 15, and because the country has one of the world’s highest birth rates, the population is expected to reach nearly 40 million by 2025.

That could well mean that higher oil prices are here to stay. One paradox of modern-day Saudi Arabia is that while it seeks to reduce the importance of petroleum to its economy, it needs those exports more than ever.

One of the most noticeable illustrations of the industrialization push is a plan championed by King Abdullah, the 83-year-old Saudi monarch, to build six new cities throughout the country — including the King Abdullah Economic City on the western coast, near the city of Rabigh; the Knowledge Economic City, near Medina; and the Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, in the north.

The intent is to create industrial centers that double as housing and commercial hubs for the country’s young and growing population. The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, a government agency, expects these cities to add $150 billion to the country’s G.D.P. by 2020, create one million new jobs and be home to as many as five million people.

According to SABB, these cities together will have four times the geographical area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to Singapore’s. Other plans include building four refineries, two petrochemical plants and a modern graduate-level university with an endowment of $10 billion.

“Saudi Aramco has a vision of itself as Exxon Mobil,” Mr. Seznec of Georgetown said, “except much bigger.”source:NYTimes

My comment: I find the last sentence rather illuminating. As for the progress of Saudi Arabia, well, civilizations come and go and the circle goes on forever. Which is to say, we, on the west, believe that our growth and richness are here to stay, but statistics shows that Europe's population is aging very quickly and although the Euro is strong, we see what's happening with the US economics. We must face it, the future may not be what we want it to be, so my opinion is, we have to do our best to at least have a decent future. If possible, future without burkas and veils, because that would be huge step back for the humanity-women, we have already proved we're important part of society . But if that things are no longer a threat(meaning, if they abandon them), well, why not? English or Arabic-all the same.

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