By Orlando Crowcroft  www.arabianbusiness.com

It is never easy getting accurate information about ongoing projects in Saudi Arabia, and Jeddah’s kilometre-high Kingdom Tower is no exception.

There were rumours towards the end of 2010 that an announcement on the progress of the world’s tallest building would be forthcoming, but it wasn’t, and calls to the developer Emaar came to nothing.

Meanwhile the architecture firm that are alleged to be designing the 1,000m tower – Smith and Gill – not only said that there was no news about the project, but they refused to confirm they were involved in it at all.

Indeed, it is telling that if you type ‘Kingdom Tower Jeddah’ into Google, you are presented with a whole host of pictures of Dubai’s kilometre-high Nakheel Tower. Not only do we know nothing about Saudi’s supertall, we don’t even know what it looks like.

I reflected on all this during a conversation with architect Eric Tomich, who worked on the Burj Khalifa. He pointed out that while people often ask about the engineering challenges of building tall, few consider the commercial factors.

What makes the Burj successful is not people flocking to buy flats or hotel suites within it, but the retail, leisure, residential and hospitality that surround it. It’s Dubai Mall, the Address and the thousands of tourists that visit them that are paying for the Burj, not Giorgio Armani.

In light of this, it is not a surprise that the information has been so lacking on the Kingdom Tower – I don’t think it will ever get built.

Even with the limited amount we know about the project, it is impossible to conceive of how it could mirror the success of the Burj Khalifa, and thereby pay for itself. As anyone who has been to Jeddah will tell you, the idea of a Jeddah Mall, with starry-eyed tourists lining up to have their photos taken in front of the world’s tallest tower is not just implausible, it’s laughable. As for top-end business hotels, Saudi Arabia’s draconian visa policies will continue to bar most from outside the kingdom from filling the rooms, and domestic business travel can only go so far. Not even 36 million Saudis – a majority of those not rich businessmen – can mirror that in commercial terms.

People will argue that with its growing construction industry and monumental state coffers, Saudi Arabia can do anything, but at the end of the day somebody has to pick up the tab. Indeed, the limited progress on sites such as Sports City, where a majority of the consultants were let go last year, shows that Saudi Arabia is not invincible.

Perhaps next week, next month, even next year, when plans are made public and work begins, I will have to eat my hat. But for now, in a country that has KAUST, the KAFD, two iconic tall towers and eye-wateringly rich rulers, the Kingdom Tower is one trophy project too far.

Orlando Crowcroft, is the editor of Middle East Architect.

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