A Wadi Runs Through It

Late in 2010, a US magazine editor gave me a tip about an environmental scheme in the Saudi capital Riyadh that was up for a major international prize, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. They were keen for me to do a story.

The scheme – which has transformed Riyadh’s main Wadi Hanifah watercourse from a polluted dumping ground into a showpiece array of lakefront parks and water recycling – won the award, and the magazine, Saudi Aramco World, ran my story in their Jan/Feb 2012 issue under the title “A Wadi Runs Through It”. Click here to read it.

I also developed the theme elsewhere, including for the BBC, who broadcast my radio script today in the From Our Own Correspondent strand (audio begins 11’40”) and repackaged it as a news story here.

(UPDATE: The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi has also taken the story, running it here.)

Wadi Hanifah astounds from just about every angle. In environmental, engineering, design and architecture terms it is groundbreaking: conception, execution and finishing are immaculate from beginning to end (PDF 3MB). And in terms of urban planning, economics, social development and even global diplomacy, Wadi Hanifah provides a fascinating commentary on the priorities and mindset of the Saudi government, not least on its deployment of resources. Riyadh gains this billion-dollar redevelopment while the sewers in Jeddah overflow, people continue to live in poverty and human rights are severely restricted. As I mention in the BBC story, “greenwash” is playing its part.

The wadi’s role in Saudi history, and the fact that this physical link between Dir’iyyah and Riyadh – evoking Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and Ibn Saud – has had such attention lavished on it is also no coincidence.

Yet at least the project’s existence is allowing these issues to be aired – and, ultimately, the people of Riyadh get to enjoy the benefits over their barbecues every weekend. Each babystep towards progressive social integration, however left-field, should be welcomed.

The story’s big takeaway is that environmental conservation is not just about birds and animals, but society as a whole. It is healthy, in every sense of the word. And in tourism terms, how many Middle Eastern capitals have a 50km-long nature trail running through them? I’d love to return to Riyadh and do a story on slow travel, taking a couple of days to cycle through Wadi Hanifah from one end of the city to the other without once venturing onto asphalt. Anyone care to join me?