RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it would spend 86 billion riyals ($23 billion) to boost the quality of life in the capital Riyadh, increasing green space and recreational areas and installing 1,000 works of art across the city.
The four projects unveiled are part of efforts to open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles, encourage physical activity and make life more fun in the conservative kingdom, alongside reforms to diversify the economy away from oil.
They are the latest in a series of planned development investments that King Salman has launched at the side of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after a global outcry over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October tarnished the crown prince’s image.
State media showed the pair touring a diorama of the plans, which include a park four times the size of Central Park and 135 kilometers (84 miles) of cycling track. The king also ordered that one of the capital’s main roads be renamed after his son.
The murder of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked international criticism of the crown prince, who had won Western plaudits for easing social strictures. The CIA and some Western countries suspect him of ordering the killing, which Saudi authorities vehemently deny.
The kingdom, and the crown prince, have also been criticized for a crackdown on dissent, including putting 10 prominent women’s rights activists on trial last week.
While some critics abroad have called for the crown prince’s removal, the king has stood by his favorite son and heir apparent as Riyadh tries to move on from the murder and refocus attention on reform plans that require huge foreign investment.
Work on the four new projects will start in the second half of the year and come on line gradually between 2023 and 2030. They will create 70,000 jobs and offer investment opportunities worth 50 billion riyals to local and foreign investors, state news agency SPA said.
One initiative aims to increase six-fold the percentage of green areas in Riyadh, notorious for its multi-lane highways and concrete block buildings, by planting 7.5 million trees. Seven museums, an open art fair, pedestrian bridges and community gardens are also called for.
Such features were unimaginable in Riyadh just a few years ago when religious police patrolled the streets enforcing strict social codes like gender segregation and bans on public music.
But life in the capital has become more relaxed in recent years after the crown prince clipped the wings of the religious police, ended a ban on cinemas and began organizing public concerts. He has won the support of many young Saudis.
Saudi citizens have no vote and falling oil income could affect their living standards in coming years. As a result, improving quality of life is seen as important for ensuring political stability.
Editing by Larry King and Frances Kerry