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Jeddah Tower: The Tallest Structure that they Just Stopped Building

It’s almost a rule of history that when countries have money, they build giant buildings. Since time immemorial, large, impressive structures were how kings and leaders and otherwise powerful people displayed their wealth. The Egyptians built the pyramids to show off how rich they were. The Greeks built the Colossus at Rhodes to show off how rich they were. The Romans built the Coliseum to have a convenient place for gladiator fights, and also to show off how rich they were – you get the point. Architecture and giant buildings are the typical manner in which the leaders of a state earn prestige and recognition for their community’s accomplishment.

This is true for modern times, as well. You have the Empire State Building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Shanghai Tower in… take a wild guess. The point is that we as a species haven’t gotten over our love of giant buildings. One region in particular that really hasn’t gotten over it is the Middle East, specifically the Persian Gulf.

The countries in this region – Qatar, the UAE, Saudia Arabia, etc. – were not always known for massive amounts of wealth. That’s the nice way of saying that before the world got hooked on oil, they were basically sandpits. But after the world got hooked on oil, they became some of the wealthiest countries on the planet. And as we said before, when countries have money, they build giant buildings. Right now, you’re probably thinking of a certain Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the current tallest building on earth and famous for giving you the chance to watch the sun set twice – once at the base of the tower, and once at the top after you take a super-fast elevator.

But… buildings tall enough to let you watch the sun set twice don’t come cheap. The final cost of the Burj Khalifa came in at $1.5 billion. That’s quite the bill to foot, and it’s really something that only a petrostate looking to show off its ostentatious wealth can really do.

Enter Saudi Arabia. Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS), crown prince of the kingdom and its de facto leader, knows that the future of oil is bleak in a world that is moving inexorably towards renewables. On top of that, the price of oil has been pretty much bottom-bar for the last few years ever since America started fracking its fingers off and flooding the global market with cheap oil. As such, he has been devoting more and more attention to the task of diversifying its economy away from oil.

One of the ways the crown prince plans to do this is by attracting foreign investment, and one of the ways he plans to do that is a tactic as old as time itself – showing off. The crown prince has gone on business trips abroad, made some limited social reforms to the country to make it more appealing to companies, and has gone on the record saying that he wants the country to wean itself off of oil. Perhaps his most ambitious project, however, is the Jeddah Economic City, a planned expansion to the city of Baljurashi. Just kidding, it’s an expansion to the city of Jeddah.

The expansion plans to have everything that you’d expect – homes for residents, hotels for visitors, commercial buildings for workers, and touristy attractions besides. But the centerpiece of the whole project is the Jeddah Tower, planned to be even taller than the Burj Khalifa in next-door UAE. While the latter has a height of around 830 meters, the Jeddah tower is billed as the first tower in history that will be a full kilometer tall. It’ll have a large “sky terrace” overlooking the Red Sea with which anyone can see for miles around, and it will serve as a hub for community and business to be done in the area. It’s predicted to cost a total of $1.23 billion (but let’s be honest, these things always go over budget), and hey, it’ll be the tallest building on the planet.

Sounds nice, right? Apparently MBS thought so, because the project broke ground in April 2013. Prior to that, there had been years of preparation to determine whether or not the area was sound enough to support the structure. Kilometer-high towers can’t be built just anywhere, after all. After they determined that it was, they went through the process of finding an architect, getting a contractor, handing out the permits, all that boring bureaucratic stuff, before the project really began. When it started, the company doing the construction, Jeddah Economic Company, said that they planned to have the tower completed by 2020.

Well… it’s 2020, and the tower still isn’t done. In fact, it’s not even close. As of today, the tower is only about one-third of the way to completion, and is actually not even being worked on at the moment. Construction was halted in 2018 for unclear reasons, and it has not resumed.

Jeddah Tower are still under construction untill today
Jeddah Tower by S.Nitzold is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Why? We’re not entirely sure. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rather secretive about any governmental matters, and the government has a pretty heavy presence in this project. Wikipedia claims that there’s a “labor dispute”, but the sources it lists under that don’t actually say this, and Google doesn’t have much in the way of information either, so short of asking MBS what’s up, we’re left with… speculation, basically.

We don’t know for sure, but in 2017, MBS initiated a purge of the government that snagged several high-profile billionaires in Saudi Arabia. Among this group was the owner of Kingdom Holding Company (who just so happens to be a member of the Saudi royal family) and the chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group, a construction conglomerate. Both of these organizations were, and still are, heavily involved in the construction of the Jeddah Tower. We obviously can’t say for sure if this was the reason they halted construction, but the CEO of Kingdom Holding said that the tower would definitely resume construction in 2020.

Of course, that was back in February 2019, before the world just decided to shut everything down for some unknown reason, maybe they felt like taking a break from it all or something, but suffice to say, the tower is still not being actively worked on and may not be finished for another few years. That being said, Saudi Arabia will probably finish the project regardless of what happens, since the age-old rule still applies: when countries have money, they build giant buildings, and Saudi Arabia certainly has money.

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