Editor’s Note: This article is not intended to condone, much less lionize, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s reign or the controversial policies that he did not or would not reform, which are beyond the scope of this piece. Sociopolitical climate notwithstanding, the fact remains that he has left a significant legacy of building and development projects in Saudi Arabia.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, ruler of the oil-rich nation of Saudi Arabia, died last Thursday after battling pneumonia for over a month, according to royal officials. He left behind a cultural legacy of major liberal reform in a country that, despite its many domestic struggles, has risen quickly as a tour-de-force of architecture and development.
Abdullah officially came to the throne in August 2005, but he had already been leading the country for 10 years since his half-brother, King Fahd, suffered a severe stroke. Throughout his reign, he focused on job creation and promoting education, starting a government scholarship program that sent Saudi students to study abroad programs around the world. He also gave women the right to vote and compete in the Olympics in 2012, though the nation still has a long way to go toward gender equality.
Abdullah refined his foreign relations policy, strengthening relationships with the United States, Great Britain, and throughout the Middle East, all the while preparing his country for exponential population growth. Despite his decidedly conservative human rights record, the late ruler will be remembered for architectural projects to his name.
His biggest project by far was the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD), the new economic sector and architectural haven in the capital city of Riyadh. The masterplan, designed by HMWhite in collaboration with Henning Larsen Architects and FXFOWLE International, includes over 60 towers spread across 1.6 million square meters. The mini-metropolis will accommodate 12,000 residents, a monorail and several major structural designs by some of the world’s most famous architects. The city is one of four being laid across the country, all estimated to be completed by 2030.
One of King Abdullah’s most important goals was to strengthen educational opportunities for the youth of Saudi Arabia. His best-known university project was the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thumal.
King Abdullah supported two other major projects dedicated to his prosperous oil industry. While the King Abdullah Petroleum Science and Research Center (KAPSARC), located in Riyadh, will focus on oil studies and sustainability, the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture will sit in Dhahran to promote cultural activity throughout the Kingdom.