Friday, May 14, 2010

Non-Muslims Make Small Steps into Medina

Written by Adam Gonn
Published Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Saudi Arabia considers the entrance of non-Muslims into a new area outside Islam’s second holiest city.

Saudi Arabia plans to build a new neighborhood on the outskirts of Medina where non-Muslims may be permitted to take up residency.

The ‘Knowledge Economic City’, set to be located three miles from Medina’s central mosque, will be Saudi Arabia’s first so called smart city, as all the buildings in the area will be connected via data, video and voice links.

“We want to develop a knowledge based industry and to attract major universities from all over the world,” Wafim Paffier, a business developer for the Knowledge Economic City, told The Media Line. “We want to create an economic platform that will reverse the emigration from Medina and attract Muslim scientist to come and work.”

“We hope that our city will revitalize the economic situation of Medina’s population,” he said. “It will be the new downtown.”

Both the cities of Mecca and Medina are considered Haram, or forbidden, for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Currently, only the Medina train station is open to non-Muslims.

Paffier indicated, however, that there would be flexibility on the issue regarding the new neighborhood.

“We are negotiations withy the government to move the Haram boundary so that more of the city will be outside it,” he said.

Set to house 150,000 people on 4.8 million square meters, the land for the new city was donated by Saudi King Abdullah, the project’s principal backer. Once completed, the total investment in the new area will be $ 8 billion.

1200 shopping outlets and hotels set to accommodate up to 30,000 visitors in the neighborhood are expected to provide 20,000 jobs in various sectors, the development company said.

While Medina is well known as the burial site of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, over the last decade it has evolved into a knowledge-based university town.

The Medina Knowledge Economic City is one of six being planned across the kingdom.

“The six economic cities of Saudi Arabia constitute a cornerstone in Saudi Arabia’s long term economic diversification strategy,” Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce, Senior Economist for Middle East and North Africa with Standard Chartered Bank told The Media Line. “The challenges for these cities remain the questions of adaptability to the local population needs, combined with the ability for Saudi Arabia to successfully attract qualified foreign talent to staff certain sectors it hopes to develop within these new urban developments.”

While some countries in the region have been hit hard by the effects of the global economic crisis, Saudi Arabia emerged relatively unscathed and can now push forward with new projects.

Ali Al-Mazyad, Former Economic Columnist for Al Sharq Al Awsat, said there were a number of factors driving the kingdom’s economic growth.

“An increase in oil prices and the government financing of projects is a major player,” he told The Media Line. “Also the improved the performance of the private sector and the growth of experience.”

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer with a daily production capability of 10 million barrels; it also has the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

In addition to the Knowledge Economic City, next month Saudi aviation authorities are set to float a tender to build the kingdom's first privately owned airport outside Medina.

The facility, to be built at an estimated cost of at least $1.8 billion, will have a capacity of eight million passengers a year when completed around 2014. It will replace the existing Prince Mohammad Bin Abdul Aziz domestic airport.

An additional $5.3 billion is being spent on the Haramain High Speed Rail Project, which will connect Mecca and Medina to Jeddah, the economic powerhouse of Western Saudi Arabia. One of the main goals of the new railway line is to reduce the travel time for Muslims participating in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

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