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?


  1. Zora O’Neill (@zoraoneill)

    Oh, would _love_ to! So interesting. Haven’t yet had time to think about finagling a Saudi visa, though.

    This has lots of parallels to the Aga Khan-funded Al-Azhar Park project in Cario, in terms of how much it benefits the community. When I first visited, it really seemed like a gross elitist resort, but on this last visit it looked like it has integrated a lot better with the community at the edge, and I think the success of the park helped push other major fixes elsewhere in the medieval city (though it’s not like the government really did it–I think it’s all been with foreign funding).

  2. Matthew Teller

    Interesting thought, Zora. That’s what I was trying to get at, with the idea about environmental conservation benefiting society as a whole. Regardless of how it comes about, or who pays for it, green is good. People need it. As long as parkland (of any kind) has no entry restrictions placed on it – no fences, no closing hours, no admission price – it will always end up for everybody.

    That’s my pet theory, anyway.

  3. Tony Howard

    Good story Mathew. And as you rightly say good that it benefits people as well as being good for wildlife conservation. Much for Jordan to learn though fortunately the best Jordanian developments seem to come grass roots up rather than top down!

  4. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, Tony. Yes, I agree – this kind of approach could work well elsewhere. The problem, though, is the budget! That’s why what the Saudis have done is so worthy of recognition, regardless of precisely why they did it: in essence they’ve handed a billion-odd dollars to (arguably) the world’s best conservation architects and the world’s best engineers… and then stood back to let them get on with it.

    For better or worse there aren’t many countries in the world where that’s even possible.

  5. Laylah

    Great article on Wadi Hanifa one of my fav places in Riyadh..
    The problem with Wadi Hanifa (like all other public places) is that it’s littered with trash. I mean people literally picnic next to piles of crap. Not the nicest sight. the newest areas don’t even have garbage cans in them..
    Very unfortunate!

  6. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for dropping by, Laylah. Unfortunate indeed…

  7. John Aguilar

    I would love to visit this place. I hope that urban planning becomes successful here and that the litter everywhere has mitigated.

  8. Pakhi

    Liked your quote that ” environmental conservation is not just about birds and animals, but society as a whole”. Beautiful. And yes who doesn’t want to be a part of that ride with you in such a beautiful place with beautiful people.

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