Empty towers - Riyadh's new financial district

The Saudi capital is unlikely to become an alternative to Dubai any time soon. Published in The Economist, 11 May 2013

THE glass-clad skyscrapers are reaching ever higher into Riyadh’s dusty sky. The first tenants are due to move to the King Abdullah Financial District in the Saudi capital’s north-west later this year. But they may well find it a lonely place: enthusiasm is clearly lacking for the development, which boasts 42 buildings and 900,000 square metres of office space—similar in scale to London’s Canary Wharf.

Granted, new office districts often take time to come to life. Canary Wharf had to battle against sceptics for many years before becoming the success it is today. But it is unclear how Riyadh’s new district will develop into what it is meant to be: a sober Saudi alternative to Dubai’s exuberant International Financial Centre.

To date just 10% of the district’s office space has been leased; tenants will include the country’s stockmarket regulator, the Capital Markets Authority, and one large local bank, Samba. A further 10% is under negotiation, according to sources close to the developers of the project.

A big problem is its size. The Saudi economy may be doing well on the back of high oil prices, but not so well that its businesses could easily digest all the extra property. The new financial district has three times as much high-end office space as the rest of Riyadh. In other words, even if every company in the city’s plusher offices moved to the new district it would still be two-thirds empty.

Costs are another hurdle. “It might be prestigious but why should I pay an arm and a leg to be there?” asks a local executive. Some banks, like Arab National Bank and Al Rajhi Bank, are building new towers elsewhere. Even the Saudi central bank is thought to be staying where it is.

But if banks do not fill the space, then who will? Accountants, lawyers and insurance firms are not nearly numerous enough. They also remain to be convinced of the development’s merits. “There’s going to be all those towers, but for what? It looks like an overbuilt proposition,” says a Riyadh lawyer.

Nor are foreign firms likely to be of much help. Riyadh may be the centre of the region’s biggest economy, boasting more people and oil revenues than anywhere else. But unlike Dubai, as a financial centre the city is inward-looking, with banks largely servicing the domestic economy. That, as well as a lack of cultural life, prevent it from becoming a regional financial hub.

Yet at some point the new district may still serve its purpose. The owner has pockets deep enough to take the long view. The project was the brainchild of the Capital Markets Authority, with support from the Public Pensions Agency. One of the agency’s subsidiaries, the Rayadah Investment Company, has taken over the development, which is estimated to cost between $7 billion and $10 billion.

More important, so many near-empty buildings will be a political embarrassment, in particular since the new district carries the king’s name. Authorities may yet lean on the banks to move. Optimism and market forces alone will certainly not be enough to fill all the space.