Saudi billionaire to build world's tallest tower

Such projects have become synonymous with the region, at times masking underlying economic problems

Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has teamed up with the Bin Laden Group in a grandiose project to build the world's tallest tower in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, outdoing Dubai's Burj al Khalifa, the current titleholder.

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The proposed skyscraper, the Kingdom Tower, will soar more than a kilometre into the sky and take five years to build. It is the latest in a long line of glitzy mega-projects in the oil-rich Gulf countries that are as much about national and personal prestige as they are about showcasing their economic clout.

The tower, which will include luxury apartments, offices and a shopping centre, is thought to be the brainchild of the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed, nephew of King Abdullah.

The prince, one of the world's wealthiest men, said yesterday that his company, Kingdom Holding Co, had signed a $1.2bn deal with the Bin Laden Co, a Saudi construction firm owned by the family of the slain terror chief Osama bin Laden, to build the tower on the outskirts of Jeddah.

The tower, designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture, will if completed be the glimmering centrepiece of a $20bn new city that looks out over the Red Sea, as well as a prized trophy for its wealthy backers.

Currently, Dubai's Burj al Khalifa, which was completed last year, is the highest building in the world at 828m, with its nearest rival, the Taipei 101 in Taiwan, lagging some way behind at 509m. The eventual height of the Saudi tower is expected to soar substantially higher than 1,000m, but its backers are cagey about the exact scope.

In recent years, the Gulf states have embraced ever more grandiose and ambitious ventures such as man-made islands and luxury housing developments, even as the West looks at years of austerity. Such "prestige projects" have become synonymous with the region, at times masking more serious underlying economic problems.

Dubai unveiled the $1.5bn Burj al Khalifa last January even as its financial and real-estate markets were crumbling. Just months before, it had been forced to borrow cash from neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi to deal with its deepening debt problems. In the end, Dubai paid a steep price for the bailout, naming the tower in honour of the president of the UAE, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

For Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of oil, the project will help the kingdom to diversify away from an energy-fuelled economy, putting Jeddah, the country's third-largest city, on the map, and encouraging much-needed investment. Amid uncertain economic climes, Prince Alwaleed said that the new project was intended to "send a message of strength".

"To a significant extent these types of projects are confidence and image-building measures," said Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank. "They are used to enhance the identity of a city and to demonstrate a strong, booming economy."

But some question the purpose of continuing to build ever more elaborate skyscrapers in an era when architecture has evolved to allow designs that are arguably more interesting and innovative.

"It's a rather futile exercise to build taller and taller," said Rory Ocayto, deputy editor of Architects' Journal. "We know we can do it, but to what end?"