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Smart cities in the Middle East: on the vanguard of urban living

Article-Smart cities in the Middle East: on the vanguard of urban living

Future of urban living being redefined with Middle East leading the way, experts from AtkinsRéalis and Coldwell Banker Middle East share thoughts on a $679.5 billion global sector

Smart Cities deploying new digital technologies, to enhance urban services and quality of life, were on the forefront of discussion at Cityscape Global in Riyadh last month. Cityscape Intelligence got in contact with a couple of experts leading up to the big event in Riyadh, to get their insights on Smart Cities.


The future of urban living is being redefined, with the Middle East leading the way in the development of smart cities. According to AtkinsRéalis, the Middle East is projected to pour nearly $50 billion into smart city endeavors by 2025.

But just how many of these advancements are currently visible in this region?


"The smart city concept is not new; Amsterdam was ranked as the first smart city in 1994. Globally, $679.5 billion was spent on the development of smart cities in 2020. Saudi Arabia also joined the race to develop a smart city," says Youssef Khattar, CEO of Coldwell Banker Saudi Arabia, a renowned global real estate firm.

In fact, according to Allied Market Research, the Saudi Arabia smart cities market was valued at $3,552.1 million in 2019 and is projected to reach $14,745.2 million by 2027, while growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.6% from 2020 to 2027.

These figures illustrate the increasing significance of smart cities on a global scale and demonstrate the determination of countries in the Middle East to be part of this transformative movement.


Given their dramatic population growth rates, cities in the Middle East are confronted with escalating demands for resources such as energy, water, and food. In light of these, transitioning towards smarter Middle East cities is not only highly desirable but also critically vital.

The GCC region is rightfully earning a reputation as a smart city incubator, attracting investments and fostering experimental technologies. Mohannad Salam, the Smart Cities Lead for Middle East at AtkinsRéalis, notes, “The Gulf region aims to boast a trillion-dollar digital economy by 2025. At the heart of this goal is the realization of key smart city development goals.”

Salam further explains that accomplishing this ambitious objective requires the successful execution of vital smart city development initiatives. Examples of these efforts already in place include the Zayed Smart City Project and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE; NEOM in Saudi Arabia; Lusail City and Education City in Qatar; and several initiatives in Oman.


Further future-focused projects are also on the horizon. Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 sees a plethora of megaprojects adopting an integrated smart city development approach. These include endeavors such as Central Riyadh, NEOM's THE LINE, Oxagon, and Diriyah.

"The Saudi Vision 2030 has adopted and reflected the smart city concept by setting a series of specific goals for implementation. It sets out clear procedures to transform Saudi Arabia over the next 12 years," elaborated Youssef Khattar. The scale of investment is substantial, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE together expected to invest around $49.3 billion in smart city projects by 2025, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan.

While these efforts are primarily government-led, there is ample scope for private participation. Private investors can partake as designers, property developers, or service providers. The involvement of professional service and project management companies, such as AtkinsRéalis, can also bring about a collaborative delivery model helpful for large-scale and complex projects.

“As a leading professional services and project management company, AtkinsRéalis is supporting a number of clients in the public and private sectors across the GCC in developing and implementing their smart city strategy, framework, processes and solutions” says Salam.

“As a delivery partner organization for THE LINE, NEOM, we are adopting a highly collaborative delivery model in response to its scale, complexity, supply chain and requirements for innovation.”


However, transitioning towards smart cities is not without its challenges. The financing of such projects can be substantial, causing stakeholders to question their feasibility. Fundamental shifts in mindset are needed to see these projects as long-term qualitative investments rather than short-term economic expenditures. Additionally, the large-scale nature of these initiatives necessitates significant funding, public-private collaboration, and major infrastructure efforts.


Concurrently, data privacy and security concerns must also be addressed. Enhanced regulations and certifications for smart devices can increase transparency and assuage apprehensions. Lastly, bridging the skills gap is vital for implementing smart city visions. This can be achieved through greater investment in skills, training, and harnessing the potential of those passionate about digital technologies.


Facing the challenges to smart city development in the GCC region necessitates a balanced approach that takes into account the need for economic viability, public-private collaboration, and a commitment to sustainable and inclusive progress.

With the right mix of vision, investment, and commitment, the cities of tomorrow are already materializing in today's Middle East.

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