1For many in the Arabian Peninsula, ‘Unayza is known as the Paris of Najd, an expression coined by Amīn al‑Riḥānī, a Lebanese writer, traveler and political activist, who visited the city in 1922. Almost a century later, many still remember ‘Unayza by this title, but the city has lost much of its former appeal, autonomy and influence in the larger Saudi Arabian urban context.
- 1 ‘Unayza is currently the 23rd largest city in Saudi Arabia and thus significantly smaller than othe (...)
- 2 This rather stereotypical division should be viewed as a symbiotic relationship that stabilized cen (...)
2The “Paris of Najd” is only a medium size town of 163,729 inhabitants1 located in the central province of al‑Qaṣīm (see Map 1). This province with its ancient cities, gardens, date plantations and wadis is considered the heartland of the kingdom. The people of the towns and villages of al‑Qaṣīm were involved in agriculture and trade, and developed a specific identity, referred to as ḥaDar (or town dwellers). The ḥaDar distinguished themselves from the nomadic badū2, or Bedouins, who roamed Central Arabia with their camels and sheep in search of pasture and water. Although settled life did not always preclude the existence of tribal ties, social ties, modes of interaction and the economic situation have dramatically changed.
3In the now province of al‑Qaṣīm, Burayda, with its 614,093 inhabitants,3 has always been the main rival of ‘Unayza. Burayda is the largest city in al‑Qaṣīm, the province’s capital as well as its administrative, financial and economic center, yet it has never managed to fully subjugate its smaller southern neighbor and rule over it.4
- 5 Perry‑Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin.
Map 1: Saudi Arabia, Political Map, 2003.5
- 6 Screen shot from Google Maps.
Map 2: Satellite Map of ‘Unayza Governorate and surrounding villages.6
4This article will argue that while ‘Unayza stood out in the previous century, its urbanization process, and more broadly its access to modernity was accompanied by a concomitant and gradual loss of political autonomy. These two factors have led to a homogenization of the urban landscape throughout the Kingdom. This homogenization, brought about by administrative centralization, a rise in living standards and an imported modernity, resulted in people trying to cling to, resurrect and reinvent their historical heritage and prestige in order to define their local identity. This article will critically assess the main findings of earlier observers, particularly Arab American traveler Amīn al‑Riḥānī (1922), and later, in the 1980’s, anthropologists Cole and Altorki who argued that ‘Unayza was transitioning into the post‑oil era while maintaining a distinct identity. This article will show that, economically, the city has deepened its dependence on the Saudi state while preserving the memory of its former autonomy and promoting its own intellectual and social heritage. Furthermore, with the mounting pressures of globalization and the processes of centralization, the city has failed to remain a catalyst for urban development. This can be interpreted as a sign of shifting identities, where contemporaries from ‘Unayza construct a new narrative that looks back to the “good old days” in a nostalgic or even sometimes anxious manner. This longing for the past can be seen as a vehicle for criticizing the present time. And since ‘Unayza can boast about a “golden past” that is older than the current Saudi state, it shows that local identity can clearly survive alongside national identity.
- 7 Other more objective factors contributed to this transformation as well, such as the physical prese (...)
- 8 Robinson, 2002.
- 9 The diwāniyāt are a form of all‑male weekly gatherings where current issues of general interest are (...)
5The case of ‘Unayza also illustrates the subsequent reshuffling of the hierarchy of Saudi towns induced by economic transformations. Other than the holy cities which retained their importance, the cities that attracted most of the oil‑revenues and development projects were the economic and administrative centers, Jiddah and Riyadh respectively, port cities that boomed and developed in 1975 (Yanbu, al‑Jubayl) and to a lesser extent capitals of the new provinces. Other formerly prosperous cities like Ḥā’il, ‘Unayza, and al‑Qaṭīf, void of strategic importance were both modernized and downgraded. Amin and Graham (1997) describe the dichotomy between global cities versus ordinary cities according to different planning processes, economic activities and a sense of belonging/identity. While Riyadh, Jiddah, Dammam and Mecca became active stakeholders in the country’s quest for hegemony and stability in a globalized political economy, ‘Unayza must be referred to as an ordinary city due to an overly centralized control of the city’s growth and development.7 As Robinson showed, hierarchical thinking dominates contemporary discourse on urban growth8. Global or mega‑cities receive more attention from the authorities and ordinary cities are hard‑pressed to catch up with them. While ‘Unayza in the past may have been considered a “global” city according to central Arabian standards and due to its historic role as trading center, the city has lost its place and found itself far from the major commercial routes and left out of investment plans that favor other cities and regions in Saudi Arabia. This left ‘Unayza in a mediocre position between a glorious past and an ordinary future. There is however still a positive urban collective spirit over the city’s past image counterbalancing its economic decline. This kind of cultural social activism upholds the city’s cosmopolitan memories by promoting it through various forms of social media (online discussion forums, literature clubs, informal gatherings, diwāniyāt9).
- 10 The most popular online discussion forums can reach as much as 70,000 users (www.shababonaizah.com) (...)
6This article is based on the latest official publications from the Saudi State, reflecting a mix of centralization, curtailing of regional autonomy and top‑down modernization, as well as fieldwork material collected during several research trips between 1998 and 2012. Additional information about the city’s current structure, its physical and cultural state, and its image within the larger Saudi Arabian context was obtained from newspapers as well as from an analysis of online discussion boards.10 The latter can be seen as a self‑censored tool for self‑representation that attracts thousands of users and generates intensive discussions about local and regional topics. These discussion boards (al‑muntadayāt) serve multiple functions: an outlet for the prominent tribal identity, forums for discussing pressing local issues, and venues for socializing among members.
7The first section of the article explains the origin of the label “Paris of Najd”. Based on Altorki and Cole’s account of ‘Unayza in the 1980’s, the second part describes how the city grew in size as central control increased, but declined in terms of attractiveness. The third section details how the city has transformed into a mid‑sized city with a high standard of living, an overly centralized administration and little individual room for growth. The outlook to the future is explored in the concluding remarks.
- 11 For more on ‘Unayza during the time period of the second Saudi state, see Commins, 2002.
8For centuries the tribes of Central Arabia fought for hegemony of the area and for control of the cities. ‘Unayza’s location, at the crossroad of major trade and caravan routes to Medina in the West, Ḥā’il in the North, al‑Dir‘iya in the South and al‑Hufūf in the East, gave the city strategic and economic importance at a time when land transportation prevailed. By the middle of the 19th century, ‘Unayza had clearly become a distinguished and renowned center for trade and learning, with independent rule.11 Its reputation for political and religious independence as well as frequent contacts and strong connections with neighboring areas made the city an attractive stopover for Western and Muslim travelers. Oral histories related to these events are deeply engrained in the collective memory of the city and help to preserve a positive image of the past.
- 12 Italian explorer Carlo Guarmani was the first to stay there for a few days in 1864 (Northern Najd: (...)
- 13 Saad Sowayan, in a public lecture, provides a detailed summary and analysis of these observations. (...)
- 14 The Subay‛ tribe is one of the most ancient established in ‘Unayza: its members occupied the easter (...)
9In the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, ‘Unayza received the attention of several Western travelers.12 All praised the city for being one of the most hospitable, generous, tolerant and open‑minded urban places in Arabia.13 The city was able to maintain a semi‑autonomous status by carefully balancing regional powers of the time, mainly the Āl Rashīd and the Āl Sa‘ūd, and the Ottomans to a lesser degree. This status changed forever in 1902 when ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz b. Sa‘ūd took over the city and made the governorship hereditary in the family of the Āl Sulaym from the Subay‘ tribe, who still hold the title nowadays.14
- 15 Al‑Riḥānī’s description of ‛Unayza: The hospitality … was best during the following days in ‛Unayza (...)
- 16 The label as ville‑lumière was seemingly earned as early as the 17th century when street lighting w (...)
- 17 Al‑RiḤānī, 1990, p. 605‑610.
- 18 See a list of the prominent families from ‘Unayza in the Dictionary of Settled Families from Qaṣīm (...)
- 19 Kostiner, 1993, p. 190.
10‘Unayza’s dominance of central Arabia's urban landscape as well as its reputation led al‑Riḥānī to refer to it as the “Paris of Najd”15, a label still remembered to this day in central Arabia. What made him compare this relatively small and isolated city in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula to Paris, the “City of Light”? Paris was called “La Ville‑Lumière” because of its many street lights, which later came to symbolize the city as a center of knowledge, education and openness.16 Was ‘Unayza similarly symbolically enlightened? It is likely that the comparison was fore and foremost rhetorical but it highlights the fact that al‑Riḥānī, who visited the city in 1922 for a week only, was thoroughly impressed by the people’s friendliness and hospitality, something so ingrained in their attitudes that even strangers could feel at home there. This stood in sharp contrast to the people of other Najdī towns where he stopped. The population of ‘Unayza, also called “the Queen of al‑Qaṣīm”17, was characterized as tolerant and sociable, most of its urban elite having lived abroad. ‘Unayza had by then already earned a reputation for being a multi‑lingual, trade‑oriented and multi‑ethnic urban centre. In order to describe the social structure of ‘Unayza’s inhabitants, their hierarchy and customs, al‑Riḥānī met with community leaders who hailed from city’s elite families like the Āl Sulaym and the Āl Bassām.18 They still form the core of the city’s management system, described seventy years later by Kostiner as a “highly personalized system of administration and informal, traditional practices woven into the new institutions”19.
11Al‑Ṭufra, or the oil‑boom in Saudi Arabia during the 1970’s, brought unprecedented wealth to a country that had only little experience in resources management and redistribution. However, the government and ruling family of the Āl Saud, in accordance with the informal social pact, used some of the profits to develop the kingdom’s industry, infrastructure and administration, which had an impact on the country’s cultural and social structures.
- 20 Altorki and Cole, 1989.
12Anthropologists Donald Cole and Soraya Altorki, herself from a family of ‘Unayza, were the first to study these changes and conduct a Western study of a Saudi urban community after the oil‑boom.20
13‘Unayza had witnessed a rapid and complete transformation of its political, economic and social structures. This included a new and expanded system of agriculture, a major increase in public salaried employment, and the influx of many expatriate laborers. It also meant the building of a new town, outside of the city’s traditional boundaries, with technological progress making water, electricity and services provision possible. Furthermore, the social hierarchy changed as much as the physical layout of the city, although social changes went at a slower pace than the modernization of the infrastructure.
- 21 Altorki and Cole, 1997, p. 31.
- 22 Alohali, 1983, p. 29.
14Altorki and Cole concluded that, in the 1980’s, ‘Unayza was no longer one of the great cities of Arabia. The city had changed from being politically autonomous and economically self‑sufficient to the exact opposite, a small provincial town, both beneficiary and victim of modernization and development processes.21 The new generation of oil‑boomers had become almost completely dependent on government services. New employment patterns called for a clean desk job in the public sector or in senior‑level management. Jobs in the private sector were usually disdained because of lower salaries and benefits, notwithstanding the fact that, for such jobs, many foreign workers were far more competitive than nationals. Traditional export and trade relations were abandoned and replaced with the distribution of imported products; even the finance sector was overhauled, with government agencies providing loans and subsidizing businesses. Agriculture followed a similar trend as the government provided interest‑free loans, which led to the expansion of the agro business and a surplus in wheat, heavily subsidized until 1985/86. However, the workers and technology came from abroad. In 1983, people in ‘Unayza were mostly employed in the service sector (47 %), and to a much lesser degree in construction (16 %), trade (13 %) and agriculture (11 %).22
- 23 For years, the official exchange rate for 1 US Dollar has been 3.75 Saudi Riyal.
- 24 Altorki and Cole, 1997, p. 40.
- 25 Alohali, 1983, p. 2.
15Generally the people in ‘Unayza, like all other Saudi citizens at that time, profited from the excess money generated by the oil industry that trickled down through investments in the infrastructure. Along with rapid population growth, came an increase in demand for affordable housing. Cheap loans were distributed to build new homes through the Real Estate Development Fund (REDF). Between 1973 and 1986, almost 5,000 loans of up to 300,000 Saudi Riyal23 were invested in ‘Unayza.24 3,486 homes were built in the city at this time period and almost all of them were funded by the REDF.25 But while new land for housing was developed, the price of land soared.
16The oil crisis of the 1980’s brought significant cuts to ‘Unayza’s government services, subsidies and expenditures coupled with wage and promotion freezes. Overall, this led to the stagnation of urban growth and the development of the public service sector, with the private sector concurrently unable to fill the gap. The city’s urban landscape, along with its economy and administration fell under increased state control. By then the nickname “Paris of Najd” did not fit the reality of the city anymore.
- 26 Hathloul, 1989, p. 91.
17Saudi Arabian cities and their respective population continued to grow fast and large after the Ṭufra. After Altorki and Cole’s visit to ‘Unayza, the city continued its transition towards a new era of increased centralized control of the public sector. The general image of ‘Unayza as well as the local perception became that of an ordinary town that had fallen behind other more distinct, and more populous, mid‑size cities in the kingdom, such as Burayda, Tabūk, or Ḥā’il. Hathloul refers to the “new towns” that grew exponentially after the Ṭufra; either expanding beyond the core of the old city, or free‑standing such as oil or military towns or industrial new towns.26 ‘Unayza was not one of those booming new towns. Although the authorities provided services and invested in the infrastructure, the city did not receive the same attention or an equal share in the redistribution of oil profits.
18Over the course of the past century, ‘Unayza had lost its former leading, autonomous status among Saudi urban centers and had had to find its place among other second‑class cities. However, it must be noted that ‘Unayza did not shrink or decrease in size and that it did benefit like the other new towns from Saudi Arabia’s entry into the global market in the 1990’s. However, it experienced a rapid process of centralization whereby the authorities began to take control over almost all aspects of urban public life. This process was generally well received by the population who saw the material benefit it could draw from collaborating with the central government.
19The following gives an extensive overview of today’s ‘Unayza, its population and the public services it is provided with.
- 27 Department of Statistics and Information: Preliminary results of the General Census of Population a (...)
- 28 The larger percentage of males is to be explained by the strong presence of single male expatriates (...)
20According to the 2010 census report27 the total population of ‘Unayza governorate amounts to 163,729. The male‑female ratio is 57 % to 43 %28 and the national‑foreign ratio is 75 % to 25 %, which is the same as the national average.
Figure 1: Population of ‘Unayza Governorate and City.29
21Only 42 % of the population is engaged in a professional occupation, supporting the other 58 % of society, who are either in school, retired, homemakers or unemployed. Estimates vary regarding the unemployment rate; however they can reach as much as 40 % among the younger generation, which is the unofficial national average.30 Finally the percentage of women in the workforce does not exceed a mere 10 %.
22During al‑Riḥānī’s visit to ‘Unayza the city was managed by local administrators through highly personalized interactions. These notables hailed from distinct families and were either appointed by Ibn Saud to the very few official positions existing at the time or occupying posts that were the privilege of certain lineages, such as community elders, judges or leaders of the guild. There was little internal friction as the city’s socio‑economic structure had been run this way for generations, with little institutional structure. After the Ṭufra Altorki and Cole noted rapid changes to the management structure due to population growth, changing living and working patterns and the emergence of new social segments.
- 31 The agencies employ locals as well as workers from other parts of the kingdom. The former are hired (...)
23Since then, ‘Unayza has grown further and public administration becomes more centralized. Officially, this was done to meet the needs of a growing population and to ensure sustainable growth. Today, while the majority of the population still sees the many governmental services as a blessing, some are starting to question them as a tool for increased control and strangling a formerly independent society. The provision of these services is a key element in the transformation of ‘Unayza’s society into a largely dependent group of beneficiaries as the government agencies that provide them31 help legitimize government authority, control and supervision.
- 32 This does not include the legal sector where services are mostly provided by religious scholars.
24The remaining of this part looks at four different sectors of public service provision, each of them illustrating a particular aspect of how developing state services impacted the administration of ‘Unayza’s local affairs32. Firstly, in the case of highly beneficial sectors such as education, health and social services, the state took over existing under‑developed services aimed at public welfare and upgraded them. The second part looks at municipal services and public infrastructure, a sector that witnessed the most visible and successful examples how oil revenues being re‑invested to improve the material standard of living. Although highly regulated, they provide basic services and improve the urban infrastructure at very low cost to the community. The third part investigates the particular impact of state regulation on private economic activities, and the last part is dedicated to the housing sector, clearly identified as the main sector where state provision failed to adequately respond to the growing needs of the population.
- 33 Altorki and Cole, 1989, p. 36.
- 34 Currently, Yūsuf al‑Rumayḥ, from a prestigious family, is director of education in ‘Unayza.
25‘Unayza is considered a pioneer among other Saudi cities in the education sector, partially due to its openness to the outside world. The first elementary school for boys opened in 1937, the first intermediate in 1953 and the first secondary in 1956. Likewise, with regard to the introduction of girls’ education, the openness of the city made it less controversial than in other parts of the kingdom, where traditional forces resisted public education. The first elementary school for girls opened in 1960 with 285 students enrolled, a number that doubled a year later. The first intermediate school for girls opened in 1970 and the first secondary school in 1974.33 If at first the schools were privately managed, with the passing of time, increased involvement of the Saudi state reflected its desire to invest in and control public education, as well as that of local elites to rely on the state to develop the sector, seen as a way to enhance local capabilities. This convergence of interests resulted in a well‑developed, mostly public schooling system whose curricula, investments and hiring practices were regulated by a powerful school board, with local interests represented by employees and administrators hailing from the city’s leading families.34
- 35 In 2010, 366 students were enrolled in the first while the second counted 621 students.
- 36 In 2010, the total amount of vocational schools in ‘Unayza was five for boys with over 1,500 studen (...)
26Two demands have emerged with the evolution of the labor market, namely a top‑down need for vocational training and a bottom‑up request for higher education. First, due to population growth, rising unemployment and fewer government jobs, a growing demand for technical and vocational training appeared in the 1980’s, although blue‑collar salaries and status are still low. For decades, foreign workers had been brought in to work in low‑skill jobs in construction, repairing, cleaning, nursing and manufacturing. As a consequence of the policy of “nationalizing” the workforce, consisting in replacing foreign workers by Saudis, vocational schools opened throughout the kingdom. The Secondary Institute for Technical Supervision was one of the first such technical institutes to open in 1992 in ‘Unayza, with the first cohort of graduates entering the workforce two years later. A second vocational school, the Secondary Industrial Institute with special sections for electricians, mechanics and car repair was transformed into a full‑fledged technical college in 200535 while two medical institutes (nursing schools and colleges) have opened since 1982.36
27Second, the population growth since the 1960’s and 70’s brought larger cohorts of high schools graduates and created an increased demand for higher education. While the first Saudi university, King Saud University, opened in 1957 in Riyadh, it was not before 2004 that al‑Qaṣīm University was created. The opening of a local university was a matter of prestige. Burayda was chosen as the main location for the 40,000 student‑strong al‑Qaṣīm University, but ‘Unayza benefited from the opening of sub‑campuses such as the College of Medicine, the College of Health Sciences and the College of Science and Arts.
- 37 The average doctor‑patient ratio in the kingdom is 1: 750. For comparison, in the United States the (...)
28In the pre‑oil period, medical services were completely unknown to the population, apart from a handful of foreign doctors. Thanks to the oil revenues, the Saudi government started to invest in the health sector as a sign of modernity: the first hospital, the local branch of the King Saud Hospital, was built in 1958 in ‘Unayza along with a special agency administering the health sector. In 2005, ‘Unayza had 3 hospitals (2 public, 1 private) with a total of 412 beds and 272 doctors, bringing the doctor‑patient ratio in the city to 2 doctors for every 1,000 inhabitants, higher than the national average.37 In addition, ‘Unayza has 24 public and private primary health centers spread all over the province and a branch of the Red Crescent.
- 38 Almalki, 2011, p. 786.
29Despite this adequate provision of public health services, private health care providers and hospitals have mushroomed all over the kingdom over the past 20 years, and now control up to 20 % of a growing and profitable market.38 This can be interpreted as a reversed trend of centralization, the government realizing its inability to build sufficient capacity, but also as opportunity for people seeing the benefits to be drawn from investing in the private health sector. In ‘Unayza, the private al‑Wafā’ Hospital for women and children has 80 beds, with the crown prince, Prince Salmān b. ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz, providing the funds to open a specialized center for cardiac catheterization.
30While these accomplishments seem impressive, Burayda has more and better hospitals, health centers and facilities while only a 3 hours away by car from Riyadh. Anyone from ‘Unayza who can afford it or is connected with a member of the armed forces or a prince, would definitely choose to receive medical treatments in Riyadh; only in case of an emergency would he or she go to the local hospitals, considered of a lesser standard.
31Ultimately, education and health show that it was not only state control but also concurrent development processes in neighboring cities that contributed to the loss of ‘Unayza’s autonomy and appeal, despite local elites trying to attract business.
- 39 The current director of social affairs in ‘Unayza is Ibrāhīm al‑Nujaybān who hails from another dis (...)
- 40 Annual Statistical Report of the Ministry of Social Affairs 1427/28, 2006‑2007, p. 233, at http://m (...)
32Before the oil‑boom, local communities took care of those in need through religious donations and personal care. In 1962, the government established a special social security fund to support the poor, orphans, elderly, disabled, widows and divorcees. The Ministry of Social Affairs, which distributes roughly 1 billion Saudi Riyals per month nationwide, has an office in ‘Unayza39 that disbursed in 2006/07 92 million SR in pensions and allowances for 6,475 cases.40
- 41 One of the most successful programs is called “Bring Your Grandma to Kindergarten”.
- 42 Al‑Ukaz, March 12, 2012.
33Among other public provisions of social services in ‘Unayza, is the Dār al‑Ri‘āya al‑Ijtimā‘īyya (House of Social Care), established in 1976, providing health care and living assistance for adults without family support such as the elderly or physically and mentally disabled. In 2006, more than 50 people lived at the facility. The Social Service Building in ‘Unayza is much busier, founded in 1962 it includes social, cultural and medical sections and organizes various activities such as the youth club, libraries, a kindergarten, and a day‑clinic.41 Although the center was reportedly among the most popular in ‘Unayza for over 50 years, it was not adequately maintained and had to be shut down. It was replaced by a temporary building, while a larger new building complex is under construction, highlighting the significance of the institution in the eyes of the inhabitants42.
- 43 For details on the administrative structure and variety of projects see the organization’s website (...)
34The private sector also funds many charitable organizations, licensed through the Ministry of Social Affairs, which occasionally compete with the public ones. Jama‘iyya al‑Barr al‑Khayriyya (al‑Barr Charitable Organization), al‑Jama‘iyya al‑Khayriyya al‑Ṣāliḥiyya (al‑Ṣāliḥiyya Charitable Organization), which encompasses the Princess Nūra bint ‛Abd al‑Raḥmān al‑Fayṣal Center for Women’s Needs, and Jama‘iyya ‘Unayza lil‑Tanmiya wa‑l‑Khidamāt al‑Insāniyya (‘Unayza Organization for Human Development and Services) represent the largest charitable organizations. The latter, founded in 2000, concentrates its actions on supporting the disabled (via parent training, awareness‑raising campaigns etc.). It runs several social centers; all named after major donors who are usually local dignitaries. For example the Shaykh ‘Alī al‑‘Abd Allāh al‑Tamīmī Social Center focuses on services for children and women. The Shaykh ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh al‑Jufaylī concentrates mainly on vocational training and qualification, while the Ṣāliḥ bin Ṣāliḥ Social Center is engaged in cultural and educational projects, such as the ‘Unayza Council for Folklore Poetry, the Children’s Festival or Club of the Future Generation. All these charitable activities enhance the prestige of their generous benefactor. In the same vein, after the death of ‘Unayza’s most prominent scholar, Shaykh Muḥammad bin Ṣāliḥ al‑‘Uthaymīn, in 2000 a new charitable institution was inaugurated with the mission of supporting the sheikh’s students, and carrying out other religious duties (supporting the poor, widows and orphans, collecting the zakat and other religious donations, and financing the Ḥajj for those who cannot afford it).43
35The three public sections of education, health and social services address most of the people’s needs and demands, although this has lately only been possible thanks to the private sector.
- 44 Mawsū‘at al‑Mamlaka, 2007 p. 563‑569.
36Parallel to services directed at the wellbeing of population, the state also invested in the infrastructure and utility sector. In order to manage these investments, a large administrative body was developed, employing over 40 % of the Saudi workforce. Infrastructure development took the shape of an extension of the kingdom’s communication and transportation network. From only 239 km of paved roads in al‑Qaṣīm in 1953, the network extended to 4,289 km of paved primary highways in 2004, linking al‑Qaṣīm to the major cities of neighboring provinces and the main transportation hubs in Riyadh, Jiddah and the Eastern Province44. The region’s only airport, however, is located in Burayda, but a six‑lane ring road connects the two cities.
- 45 Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2004, p. 110.
- 46 Mawsū‘at al‑Mamlaka, 2007 p. 577.
37The expansion of infrastructure extended to the communication network. Today, practically every house and household owns a car and a telephone. Half of the population has a computer, and one third has access to the Internet. Almost everyone owns a television, but not everyone enjoys satellite TV.45 While in 1962, only 800 telephone lines existed46, today almost all inhabitants of ‘Unayza have a cell‑phone. Government‑owned Saudi Telecom has a monopoly‑like position and corners the market. As of 2012, the director of the local branch was a prominent notable, Hānī b. Yaḥyā al‑Sulaym: like the privatization of the health sector, mobile telecommunication, under pressure to open up to private actors, represents a profitable business where local notables can put their influence to work, in collaboration with central authorities.
- 47 Mawsū‘at al‑Mamlaka, 2007, p. 592‑594.
- 48 Burayda’s treatment plant was stopped in 2006 due to water quality and capacity concerns. A new one (...)
- 49 The Guardian, Dec 3, 2009; although this article pertains to the sewage water system in Jiddah, sim (...)
38Since the 1990’s the Saudi government has abandoned its policy of water, fuel and electricity subsidies. While electricity is relatively cheap and can be provided at low cost, the same is no longer true for water. Severe water shortages affect the al‑Qaṣīm area due to uncontrolled excessive use of fossil water. While, in the recent past, underground water was abundant and had been used to irrigate large farms to reach the state targets of wheat production, the water reserves are becoming more and more depleted and water wells must go much deeper to find water. At the same time demand is on the rise because of a booming population. While the main source of drinking water in the past had always been non‑renewable groundwater, it has started to shift to desalinated water from the Persian Gulf area, transported via pipelines. The local office of the General Directorate for Water and Sanitation in ‘Unayza is responsible for water and wastewater. Headed by ‛Abd Allāh al‑Khulayfī from an old ‘Unayza family, it maintained 680 km of water pipes serving 14,948 customers in 2004.47 In comparison, only 275 km of wastewater pipes exist, which is surprising considering the possibilities of reusing municipal water at water treatment plants.48 The population feels it is entitled to a constant access to water; however corruption and the lack of a good sewage system prevent further development and lead to constant complaints.49
- 50 On the development of the electricity sector in the kingdom see Al‑AḤmad at http://www.darah.info/b (...)
- 51 For details see the tariffs on the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority webpage http:/ (...)
39Since 1967, electricity has been produced and supplied by the ‘Unayza Electric Company. It did not reach neighboring villages until the government created the United Saudi Electric Company for the Central Region in 1981, which later became the national Saudi Electric Company.50 A major power plant serving the twin cities is located on the King Abd al‑Aziz Road between ‘Unayza and Burayda. Prices are very cheap: one kilowatt hour costs between 0.12 SR for industrial and agricultural users and charitable organizations while private, retail and government customers pay between 0.05 and 0.38 SR per kilowatt hour.51 Generally, like water, electricity is a major utility provided by the government to almost all citizens for a small fee. However, like access to water, people consider themselves entitled to it. It seems that the state’s scheme to provide cheap utilities in return for loyalty did work, at least as long as they were provided for little money and their supply was not interrupted.
- 52 For more on the works of the municipal council check its website at http://www.oc.gov.sa.
40Based on a written agreement with the late King ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz, the governor of the ‘Unayza Governorate hails from the al‑Sulaym family and is currently represented by Fahd b. Ḥamd al‑Sulaym who reports to the province governor of al‑Qaṣīm, Prince Fayṣal b. Bandar b. ‘Abd al‑‘Aziz Āl Sa‘ūd. In addition, the city has a mayor and a municipal council52 whose 10 members are half elected (by male suffrage every four years) and half appointed by the governor. The current mayor ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz b. ‘Abd Allāh al‑Bassām comes from another influential family, so is the chairman of the municipal council, ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz b. Ibrāhīm al‑Khalaf. While the governor reports to the Ministry of Interior, the mayor reports to the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Traditional notables from the leading families have maintained their administrative and political leadership, although to a much smaller extent, as salaried bureaucrats.
- 53 In 1955 former finance minister ‛Abd Allāh Sulaymān paid for the installation of the first water su (...)
41Until the municipality of ‘Unayza was established in 1961, concerned individuals or the amīr of the province took care of the city’s institutions and infrastructure.53 Under the new centralized system of local and regional administration, the municipalities have lost their influence and autonomy and become mere service providers and registration clerks for new codes and regulations. They are responsible for the sanitation, street cleaning, maintaining hygiene in shops and restaurants, road building and public park creation. The municipality still retains some influence through the issuing of licenses and permits for new buildings, the zoning and planning process and occasional investment guidance. The municipality of ‛Unayza has only limited power in the city’s administration. However, local actors can make minor contributions through its municipal council.
- 54 Mawsū‘at al‑Mamlaka, 2007 p. 602‑603.
42The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Religious Endowments and Guidance, responsible for religious activities, has a branch in ‘Unayza, with the mission of running and maintaining mosques, endowments, and da‘wa centers. The current director, Fahd al‑Khulayfa hails from another distinguished family. During Ramadan in particular, this religious office organizes lectures, courses, and exhibitions. Apart from the administrative staff, the ministry employs the imams, preachers, callers to prayer and janitors (7,664 in 2006 in the whole Qaṣīm area). In 2005 the governorate of ‘Unayza counted a total of 563 places of worships, including 32 large mosques, 524 smaller mosques as well as 7 prayer areas for ‘Id.54 This number is significantly smaller in comparison to other smaller cities in al‑Qāṣīm. Religious services in ‘Unayza, albeit of lesser importance, are still under financial and decisional control of the state.
- 55 Tickets are sent immediately to the cell phone of the car owner, who has to pay them within a month (...)
43Government hegemony went hand in hand with the formation of an effective and large‑scale security apparatus. The state provides security and safety, part of which entails the regulation and control of citizens’ everyday lives. Regular police forces are supported by traffic police, highway and safety police, even the civil defense, present in every corner of the kingdom, is part of the overall security apparatus. All these security services report to the Ministry of Interior. In al‑Qaṣīm, the Police Directorate was founded in 1962. Special departments of the traffic police, the passport agency and the highway police are located in ‘Unayza. The head of the police, Ḥamd b. ‘Abd Allāh al‑Marzūqī, is also from an old ‘Unayza family. The following two anecdotes illustrate the growing influence of security forces over local affairs. Traffic rules in Saudi Arabia leave room for interpretation which traffic police officers usually make use of, for the benefit of their relatives if they happen to be the offenders. However, ‘Unayza traffic police has started to give parking fines for wrong parking to worshippers at the Friday prayer at the city’s largest mosque. In addition, ‘Unayza is participating in a pilot project and has installed a number of speeding cameras, called Sāhir, to control traffic and collect data on car owners and drivers.55 Clearly, improved services have gone hand in hand with increased government control.
- 56 Despite the government's influence over the economy, some of the most successful and wealthiest bus (...)
- 57 Members of the board are elected for 3 to 4 years. They always come from the city’s notable familie (...)
44The centralized administration has also had an important impact on traditional economic activities.56 Government agencies include the branches of the Ministry of Trade and Industry (founded in 1968), the Directorate for Agriculture (headed by ‘Uthmān Abā al‑Khayl from the prominent Abā al‑Khayl family), and the Agriculture Bank. The local Chamber of Trade and Commerce, founded in 2007 with elected board members usually from notable families, serves as connector between government agencies and private businessmen. It has standing committees for agriculture, investment, contracts, real estate, industry and trade.57
45Agriculture has been until now the most important economic activity in the area. Although it underwent significant changes with the introduction of mechanization and new irrigation techniques, it provides few jobs. In 2013 roughly 10 % of the workforce was employed in the agricultural sector, compared to 4.5 % at the national level. As mentioned above, the agro sector has been heavily influenced by government agencies but, despite their extensive reach, they are so fragmented that the lack of cooperation between them is arguably one of the biggest obstacles for growth in this sector.
46During the 1980’s and 90’s the area around ‘Unayza and Burayda experienced a boom in wheat and barley production. Underground water aquifers were tapped to irrigate large fields of cereals by using gigantic circular sprinkler systems. In 1985 the harvest was so good that the kingdom became self‑sufficient and was able to export the surplus. To be sure, the entire process was very cost‑intensive, highly subsidized and ended up depleting non‑renewable water sources. Since then, farmland like all other real estate has become very expensive, prohibiting further expansion. The goal of self‑sufficiency was abandoned in 1986 with the fall of oil prices, today wheat is imported at a lower cost than producing it. This instance illustrates the authorities’ shortcomings in the planning and administrative process yet, contrary to that, some private investors succeeded in the agro‑business economy. Several businessmen from ‘Unayza invested in large‑scale stationary and animal farms that are highly mechanized and no longer require local attendants and herders. The kingdom’s biggest poultry farm, al‑Waṭaniyya, is located on the outskirts of ‘Unayza. Near Lake ‘Awshaziyya, there are several private fish farms producing more than 1,000 tons of fish annually.
- 58 Mawsū‘at al‑Mamlaka, 2007 p. 631. In 2002, 23 factories (15 % of al‑Qaṣīm’s factories) were found i (...)
47The industrial development of the entire region is reflected in the number of factories and workers. From 1982 to 2004 the number of factories grew from 41 to 140 and the number of people working in this sector grew from 2,114 to 8,802.58 This corresponds to ca. 7 % of the work force employed in this sector in al‑Qaṣīm. The main products include food, machinery, plastics, paper and print material, and textiles.
- 59 Economic cities are administered by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority and are located (...)
- 60 The Saudi Industrial Property Authority is in charge of 28 industrial cities spread all over the ki (...)
- 61 Among which are export‑oriented factories such as SPIMACO, Roaum Glass, Al‑Aryāf Food Factory, al‑Q (...)
- 62 The Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF) that provides medium and long‑term loans for industria (...)
48Although al‑Qaṣīm was not selected to host one of the six new economic cities59, the region does have an industrial city,60 established in 1980. A second one is in the planning stages. The industrial city is located on the east side of the Burayda ‑ ‛Unayza Road, employs over 3,000 (mostly foreign) workers and includes 43 factories,61 as well as several industrial projects in different industrial sectors such as food industries, pharmaceuticals, plastic industry, building material and metal industries. Cheap leases, government loans, subsidized tariffs for fuel, water and electricity, and customs duty exemptions make investments very attractive; however, similar to the agro sector, the bureaucracy is too large and too fragmented to be really efficient.62
49Roughly 15 % of the workforce is employed in the private trade and sales sector, which has become a major sector for the application of “Saudization” policies, and includes groceries, restaurants, shops selling clothing and textiles, building material and hardware, car dealerships, and furniture stores. The number of smaller strip malls, large malls and super malls is increasing year by year. Three projects for megamalls are currently being developed: ‘Unayza Mall, Fahd Mall, and Uthaym Mall
50Despite the government’s overwhelming role in administering the local economy, some space was left for private business initiatives.
51Providing affordable housing has become one of the main challenges for the city’s administrators due to the massive population growth and rural to urban migration. The authorities addressed this demand with national, regional, and local development plans. They built houses directly, provided serviced lots and offered interest‑free loans to the citizens through the Real Estate Development Fund (REDF). However, they have not been able to keep up with the growing demand. Estimates speak of a lack of almost 2 million houses in the Kingdom. The National Housing Strategy Plan estimates that al‑Qaṣīm needs 50,000 new housing units.63
- 64 In al‑Qaṣīm, only 15 % of the families live in apartments.
- 65 Fattah, 2011; Watch Steffen Hertog’s talk, “Saudi Arabia: Buying its way out of the crisis” at vime (...)
52Fueling the problem are specific Saudi pattern and customs. Although extended families no longer live together in special compounds, the new model core family still wants to reside in villa‑type houses (detached single family dwellings) and not in apartments.64 Also, the absence of a mortgage system prevents ordinary citizens from financing a home. The REDF offers interest‑free loans, but only a few home builders are awarded those popular loans; and the waiting time has reached more than 15 years. Since its inauguration in 1975, over 600,000 loans have been granted in the governorate, over 7,600 in ‘Unayza alone. This is an average of 250 loans per year. In 2004, a total of 674 building permits were issued. Due to the absence of taxes on land property, the door to land speculation is wide open. In an average suburb of Riyadh, a quarter acre of land sells for 1.5 million SR, in ‘Unayza it is cheaper (ca. 500,000 SR), but with a monthly average income of less than 10,000 SR, this is still impossible to finance for the majority of Saudis. So, the government and the king had to intervene and pump in additional funds: a large part of the spending bill announced by King ‘Abd Allāh in March of 2011 was allocated to the crippling housing sector and the REDF.65 Often, ministers and/or princes fund the building of housing complexes for state employees from their own pockets. However, such housing projects have been unpopular in the past, as they are not well‑maintained and built in isolation. A special ministry, the Ministry of Housing was created in 2011 to address the various problems facing the housing sector. An important change was associating the REDF with the ministry. By Royal Decree, 500,000 new houses were commissioned at a cost of 250 billion SR. Another decree stipulated the increase of REDF loans from 300,000 to 500,000 SR. It seems that the authorities recognized the importance of the housing sector and began to adopt measures in order to satisfy popular demands. However, it is surprising to note that only short‑term solutions are provided for this vital sector.
53‘Unayza, the “Paris of Najd”, used to be an urban, mercantile center known for its hospitality, tolerance and autonomy. Today the city has become a largely dependent, medium size town of little importance. Although the population has grown, the city has remained on the sidelines of economic growth and failed to become a strategic location in the country’s development. The oil‑boom has significantly accelerated the decline and dependency of the city through the allocation of resources and priorities to other cities.
54‘Unayza is neither an oil‑town, nor a transportation hub, nor a military location, nor a religious center, none of the things which made other cities strategically important. State control exercised by expanding the bureaucracy has prevailed and increased ever since. While before the oil discovery local city leaders played a pro‑active, independent part in the development process, this was reversed with the overwhelming presence of central state authority.
55As shown above, ‘Unayza’s public sector is now dominated by state agencies. Many of the services such as public education, health care and other civil services are indeed beneficial to the majority of the population; however, their growing and diversified needs are not always met. This is due to the inflated, but uncoordinated administration, which rarely encourages private involvement in public affairs. The state provides services and requires only loyalty in return. This model is certainly not a pluralistic, transparent, Western model, but an Arabian one, made of clientelist relations and that used to work in the past. Nowadays, as socio‑economic conditions change, the administration is finding it hard to adapt.
56‘Unayza is only one example of formerly independent cities, areas or tribes that have experienced similar transformations. In places like Najrān, Ḥā’il, or al‑Qaṭīf, the cities there expanded under the new Saudi rule but lost their ethnic, religious or social characteristics. Now they are trying to find their place in Saudi Arabia’s urban hierarchy.
- 66 ‘Unayza is also the only city that dared to invite a Saudi Shiite cleric for a public lecture and h (...)
- 67 See for example al‑Shibl, ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz, “‘Unayza: Bārīs Najd wa I‘jāb Amīn al‑Riḥānī”, http://www. (...)
57What al‑Riḥānī cherished the most about the “Paris of Najd”, and what Altorki and Cole were attempted to rediscover, the very hospitable and tolerant city, is still true today. This may not be the case in terms of how the city is managed, but it is definitely so in the tourism sector with its many annual cultural and touristic festivals.66 Literature clubs, private gatherings (diwaniyyāt) and online forums constitute other spaces to preserve the city’s former glory and heritage67. These places have been subjected to little state control and continue to express their independent views on the “Paris of Najd”. The city will continue to grow and will require mechanisms to control this growth. Maybe structural changes in the administration, such as strengthening bottom‑up contribution through the decentralization of decision‑making along with the incorporation of local agencies, would help ‘Unayza come to terms with its modest status in the future.