JEDDAH // Non-Muslims can never get the feel of what is it like to live in Mecca or Medina, Islam's holy cities, as only Muslims are allowed to enter them. But this is about to change when the new "smart city" being built in Medina is completed. Knowledge Economic City (KEC), Saudi Arabia's first "smart city" - its buildings are all connected via voice, data and video links - will open its doors to non-Muslims as the city is planned to be a window on Islam to the world, one of the project owners said.
Sami Baroum, the managing director of Savola group, the largest private owner in the project, said that one-third of the new city, which will be developed on an area of 4.8 million square metres, will be outside of the forbidden area known as the Haram. It is expected to open in five years. "For the first time, non-Muslims will be able to experience living within a Muslim holy city," Mr Baroum said. "They will not live inside the Haram area, but they will be very close to it as they can see the lights of the Prophet Mohammed's Mosque."
The city, known as KEC, will be developed fully over 15 years at a cost of 30 billion riyals (Dh29bn) to serve both the tourist and commercial needs of Medina. The Saudi King Abdullah, who donated the project's land, worth one billion riyals, owns the majority stake in KEC through his King Abdullah Foundation for His Parents for Charitable Housing. All the revenues generated through property sales in KEC will go to the foundation to provide housing for poor Saudis.
According to design plans, KEC will accommodate up to 150,000 people in its residential areas, which will be supported by planned commercial complexes, hospitality facilities, a theme park and an Islamic museum. "All surrounding countries are interested in building Islamic museums with large investments. Medina should be the city where non-Muslims come to understand the history of Islam instead," Mr Baroum said.
The mosque areas in Mecca and Medina are sanctuaries for Muslims, according to Islamic law. The forbidden area of the Haram in both cities is well defined, but with expansion over the years many parts of the two cities are now outside the forbidden zones. In Medina, the residential area surrounding the holy mosque is limited and has reached its accommodation capacity. Mr Baroum said KEC allows Medina to grow outside of the central area close to the mosque and towards a new international airport that is under construction. He said he wants the airport to become a hub for Muslim travellers, particularly during Haj.
"Muslim flocks will come to Medina from all around the world once the airport is completed, and we want to make sure that non-Muslims as well can come to Medina and have a place to stay," he said. Saudi Arabia is investing heavily to develop a religious tourism sector as part of its efforts to move its economy away from oil, and for the first time, the kingdom hopes to attract non-Muslim visitors.
Mr Baroum said the KEC will also have a train station for a 450km high-speed railway linking the two holy cities to Jeddah. "The new train station will be built in the one-third area located out of the Haram area, and non-Muslims can come to Medina by land to enjoy Islamic tourism attractions we will build there," he said. The KEC developers also plan for it to cater for the needs of the local population as well. Medina's population stands at one million and the developers expect it to double in 20 years.
"Out of the additional one million people, we only want to attract 75,000 or 7.5 per cent to live in the KEC. The other half of KEC's inhabitants should come from outside of Medina," Mr Baroum said. He hopes to attract retirees as well as highly skilled workers. As for its business and knowledge core, Mr Baroum said, the city is expected to be home to biomedical and information technology-related industries.
Developers hope the project will position Saudi Arabia and young Muslim entrepreneurs as internationally respected leaders in knowledge-based industries. They estimate that employers based there will create more than 20,000 jobs. Employees of those industries would be able to live nearby. "We want to make a reverse brain drain to attract back all the Muslim minds from the West to develop an Islamic knowledge-related economy in one of Islam's holy cities," Mr Baroum said.
"Attracting the right people ... is the difficult part," he said. "Providing them with the right infrastructure to do it is the easy part. "We already hired the world's largest network solution company, Cisco Systems, to do the job." According to a press statement after the signing of a contract in 2008, Cisco said it would provide the network architecture for the city. "We have non-Muslims eager to understand Islam, and we have 1.4 billion Muslims who need to visit Medina. I can't think of a target market better than this," Mr Baroum said.
When it was launched by King Abdullah and announced by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority in 2006, KEC, to the east of Medina, was the fourth of six economic cities designed to diversify the country away from oil and to provide jobs to a rapidly expanding population. According to the investment authority, KEC will also have an Islamic civilisation studies centre designed to be a hub of intellectual activity, focused on collecting, developing and transmitting the knowledge, values and artwork of Islamic civilisation, as well as finding Islamic solutions to contemporary problems such as designing Islamic banking products.