CITY OF THE FUTURE

Saudi Arabia 2016 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Osama Al-Bar, Mayor of the city of Mecca, on expected growth in visitor figures, upcoming infrastructure projects, and its initiatives to transition into a smart city.

Dr. Osama Al-Bar
BIOGRAPHY
Dr. Osama Al-Bar has been Mayor of Mecca since 1997. He has a PhD in environmental physics from Nottingham and a master’s degree in meteorology, as well as a bachelor of science degree from the College of Science, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. He was earlier Dean of the Institute of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for Hajj Research and Director General Designate of Hajj Research Center, UMAU. Al-Bar is Vice President of the Hajj Media Council and sits on the Higher Board of Mecca Development, the Hajj Central Committee, and the Execution Committee of the Higher Board of Mecca Development.

Visitor figures to Mecca are increasing rapidly. What levels do you predict moving forward?

In 2015 we had 6 million overseas visitors for Umrah and about 3 million for the Hajj. We also had about 12 million visitors from within Saudi Arabia, making up around 20-21 million visitors in total. In 2016, the government will introduce a different approach. The number of Umrah visitors will be increased because now most of the infrastructure in Mecca can accommodate up to about 30 million people. This means that from 2016 the real number of visitors from outside the Kingdom will increase by 50%. This is the government's target. The city is ready, but the number of visitors we receive depends on the economic situation in other countries around the Islamic world where our visitors come from. For example, Indonesia is one of the most important origins of pilgrims and is in a good economic situation, but if that changed it would affect visitor numbers.

What are the highlights of ongoing large projects in Mecca in the real estate and construction sector?

In the real estate sector we have various megaprojects under way to improve the informal settlement areas. There are about 55 such areas in Mecca where sanitation conditions need to be improved. Some of these areas are only 400m from the Holy Mosque and the value of the land there is high. We have started to develop these areas, with the first four projects expected to commence in 2016. Some 10 such areas have been cleared to start a project called King Abdul Aziz Road. This is a 4km stretch of road being built by the private sector. Other opportunities are in the services sector because our visitor numbers are set to double in the next few years. This number may even be tripled or quadrupled in five years, potentially to 25 million visitors. This will require a great deal of services in catering, guides and tours, hotels, and private transportation. All these services will boom and they should be provided 100% by businesses in the private sector. The government should only be involved in granting the required licenses and visas for these activities.

What plans and new regulations do you aim to implement to enable Mecca's transition into a smart city?

Our vision for Mecca is to become a smart and green environment and one of the most livable cities in the world by 2025. It is a challenging program. We started the process for a project to build the first 400 MW solar energy plant here. We completed the bidding process and the winning contractor was ACWA Power. However, with falling oil prices this project has been postponed. The drive for renewable energy will be re-launched through the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy. Furthermore, Mecca is one of the few cities that could start this process again economically. One of the problems up until now has been with the Saudi Electricity Company because it has not yet introduced smart meters. Between 2016 and 2018 it plans to switch around 3 million houses in Saudi Arabia to smart meters. The benefit is that if energy is generated from solar panels, wind power, or any other home source, this goes into the power network and the household is compensated for it. This will encourage people to use renewable energy sources.

What are your goals and expectations for Mecca in 2016?

We are working to complete the road network in Mecca. We started a huge program in 2013 to complete the city's four ring roads. By 2016, 80% of this project will be completed and we will start on a new access road that will take people direct from Jeddah to haram and from Medina to haram. That will commence in 2016. We also hope that the first signs of Mecca's transformation to a smart, green city will be evident by 2020.