The sweet pungence of barbecuing chicken fills the air as visitors, chatting in Arabic, get on with picnic preparations. A flurry of French surrounds a group of children as they race their bicycles down a nearby street. Not far away, in a pizzeria fronting a marble plaza, English, in a variety of accents, is the lingua franca - between forkfuls of spaghetti.
It might be the grounds of the United Nations complex in Geneva, or a World Bank outing in Washington.
But the park and the street are set with palms. And the sand-colored buildings around the central plaza, shadowed by two soaring minarets, are decorated with the geometric motifs of the traditional structures of the Najd region of central Saudi Arabia.
On the main boulevards outside the plaza, cyclists share the way with autos bearing green diplomatic license plates, and the flags of many nations fly over the striking buildings that face each road.
It's the new Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter, or DQ, a near billion-dollar development set on the edge of the Wadi Hanifah, just southeast of the capital of Saudi Arabia. And it's beginning to bloom.
"I don't think there is a similar experience in the world," says Dr. Mohamed Alshaikh, president of the Riyadh Development Authority (RDA), who has spearheaded the project since it got under way a little over a decade ago.
Other efforts to build special sub-cities for diplomats really aren't comparable to the 650-hectare (1,600-acre) DQ, says Alshaikh, who holds a degree in civil engineering from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in transportation from the University of California at Berkeley. "There were many attempts by other nations to set up similar things, but the scale was much smaller. The Diplomatic Quarter is unique in this respect."
Nor is it like Brasilia, built from scratch in the 1960's as Brazil's new capital: The DQ is planned as "part and parcel of Riyadh. It exists in the context of an already built environment," he says.
The quarter lies just eight kilometers (five miles) from downtown Riyadh, conveniently near the city's new international airport, government ministries and the new campus of King Sa'ud University (See Aramco World, September-October 1985). It is also within easy reach of the Kingdom's past: Just a few kilometers down the dry but fertile valley of the Wadi Hanifah is Dir'iyah, the ancestral home of the Kingdom's royal family, Al Sa'ud.
The RDA president has close ties with Dir'iyah, too. He is the direct descendent of Shaykh Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the outspoken religious reformer who was sheltered in the town by Muhammad ibn Sa'ud in the mid-18th century. The alliance of the two families that was forged there paved the way, finally, for the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The rugged Wadi Hanifah, known for its cool dusk breezes, forms the long western boundary of the wedge-shaped DQ. The development is rimmed on the south and east by two freeways, but they're invisible behind a huge, landscaped earth berm.
The DQ, today a showcase for some of the world's best-known architects, has been both a long and, in a way, a very short time coming.
Although Riyadh was the launching pad in 1902 for King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud's effort to unify the country, and has been Saudi Arabia's seat of government for decades, the city was effectively isolated by deserts and out of reach of all but the most intrepid foreigners until the 1960's. Instead, it was Jiddah, the country's bustling trading and communications center on the Red Sea, that best suited the needs of the diplomatic community. Logically, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was located there, too.
It wasn't until 1975 that the government decided to shift that office to Riyadh, the location of the rest of the country's ministries and, by then, the headquarters of many new Saudi and joint-venture banking and commercial enterprises.
At the same time, the foreign diplomatic missions in Jiddah were requested to move to the capital, and a committee chaired by the Governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, set up a bureau of specialized town planners, architects, engineers and landscape designers to implement separate projects for the diplomatic quarter and the ministry.
That body is now called the RDA and is now responsible for a number of other major development projects in and around Riyadh, in part due to its success in the DQ.
When the first parties went to examine the site marked for the development, they found a wilderness.
"You couldn't even cross the land by car when we received it," says Dr. Ahmed Salloum, who joined the project as Alshaikh's deputy in 1976. "It was the desert. There was nothing on it."
Today, however, developers can virtually "plug in" at the DQ. Following a step-by-step master plan developed by a West German consortium led by Speerplan Regional- und Stadtplaner GmbH of Frankfurt, 377 kilometers (233 miles) of assorted water pipelines and 490 kilometers (300 miles) of power and telecommunications cable were installed, and some 50 kilometers (30 miles) of paved roads were laid. Another feature of the infrastructure is a computer-controlled irrigation system, built to water the quarter's many landscaped areas.
The DQ aims first at "providing a proper setting for international diplomacy," according to the master plan. But it is also a model for future urban development in Riyadh, as well as a place where experts believe a mix of more than 22,000 foreign and Saudi residents will boost intercultural understanding.
The 80-some countries with diplomatic representation in the Kingdom are engaged in a unique design experiment in the quarter, too: In their new embassies, chanceries and residences they're attempting to blend their own national architectural styles with those that evolved in the arid Najd.
"We wanted an architecture that reflects, in a very simple way, the foreign culture, but at the same time respects the traditional architecture in this part of Saudi Arabia," says RDA Director of Planning and Architecture Zahir Othman. For instance, he says, the RDA is seeking "a Kenyan Embassy that you would know is the Kenyan Embassy in Riyadh, and not the one in Washington or Paris."
By last spring, less than six years after ground was broken for the first embassy, 27 diplomatic missions were up and running. Seven more countries had facilities under construction and several others had received building permits. And diplomats from a number of countries, with their families, were living in the quarter, which had an estimated population of 1,200 people in last May.
Says Canadian Ambassador Douglas Valentine, "A visitor commented the other day that the diplomatic quarter reminded him of EXPO 86 [in Vancouver], with all its pavilions and flags. He was fascinated just walking around."
It isn't hard to see why.
Well-known architects whose buildings are in the DQ include Japan's Kenzo Tange, whose use of monolithic shapes and clean wall surfaces makes his country's chancery and staff residences among the most beautiful there. The American Embassy, at 2.5 hectares (6.2 acres) the largest in the development, was designed by the Houston firm CRS Sirrine, Inc. That fortress-like structure, with huge triangles framing a courtyard set with palm trees and a fountain, was opened in April 1986 by Vice President George Bush.
Other noted foreign architects represented in the quarter include Trevor Dannett of the United Kingdom, Tunisia's Wassim Ben Mahmoud, Naizot and Associates of France, Carl Nyren of Sweden and West Germany's Josef Joraschek.
The master plan defined 120 plots for diplomatic missions along two verdant central boulevards and their major feeder roads. A design brief was drawn up for each location, and missions have developed their own architectural plans for approval by the RDA.
The 50-percent excess of plots to diplomatic missions was intentional, to provide for flexibility in the project. A number of lots have also been assigned to government institutions and international organizations. One example is the gleaming headquarters of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, opened last December by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. The $75-million building was a gift from Saudi Arabia to the GCC.
Although the guidelines for building design at the DQ derive from Najdi architectural principles, there is still plenty of room for imagination. That's witnessed, for instance, by the French Embassy, which takes its cue from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
On the whole, the Najdi theme is cubist: It utilizes blank exterior walls, vertical openings and flat roofs - all architectural principles that evolved in a hot, dry region where the basic building material was the earth itself.
Buildings are "low-rise," generally not exceeding three stories, and the maximum height is 18 meters (59 feet). The basic color scheme runs from white to dark beige to light brown. To ensure structural harmony within the quarter, both in chancery buildings and housing, there is continuing close contact between RDA specialists and architects, and all building proposals are subjected to a three-stage planning control process.
Architecture in the DQ is a "sensitive issue," Mohamed Alshaikh admits. "We would like to encourage creativity and originality and in the meantime discourage anything that is obtrusive to the natural and built-up environment. It's a very tricky balance."
The bulk of the DQ's Saudi population is expected to move in as Riyadh expands, but the capital's growth has slowed and the expected date for full occupancy has been pushed from the end of the century to beyond.
Still, RDA officials are holding to plans for a mixed Saudi and foreign population: To limit the quarter to diplomats would isolate them. "We don't want to have a ghetto feeling develop," says Alshaikh.
"Physically, functionally and socially, the quarter is by no means separate from the rest of Riyadh," he says. In fact, "diplomatic mission personnel will number less than 10,000" of the DQ's projected 22,000 inhabitants, and the quarter will be "a normal neighborhood of Riyadh, with priority to the diplomats."
The mixed population will enhance diplomacy, not harm it, says Dr. Adib Kanafani, a member of a six-man board of U.S. academic advisers to Alshaikh.
"We would like to see the foreign community in Riyadh exposed to the local culture and interacting with it, and the local culture exposed to and interacting with the expatriate community," says Kanafani, the Palestinian-American director of the Institute of Transportation Studies of the University of California at Berkeley. "Opening up channels of communication and breaking down barriers of distrust is a very important aspect of diplomacy."
Weekend pick-up games of soccer between mixed teams of Saudi youths and foreigners are evidence that the chemistry for interaction is right, and the physical layout of the Diplomatic Quarter is also people-oriented.
The boulevard-bounded central core of the quarter, 1.7 kilometers long and 300 meters wide (one mile by 975 feet) is exclusively for pedestrians. The development's five residential satellite areas are linked to the core by pedestrian walkways, as well as by feeder roads.
The core area is for commercial and residential development. The sand-colored structures there - really one long swathe of buildings - have offices and apartments on their upper levels; shops, banks and plazas are on the ground floor; and vehicle access is below ground.
The architecture stems from an urban design package prepared by Saudi architect Ali Shuaibi, a pioneer in the movement back to the fundamentals of traditional architecture. His 4,500-square-meter (48,500-square foot) plaza at the heart of the core is a focal point for the entire quarter.
Surrounding it, in the Najdi tradition, is an unbroken fabric of buildings, including shops, restaurants, the main Friday mosque and an associated library, and the offices of the RDA. Here people can pray, stroll, meet with officials and buy provisions. But instead of a suq for spices in one spot and one for craftsmen in another, as in the olden days, there is now a grocery store, a sports shop, a travel agency and even a computer outlet.
Shuaibi claims that both Saudi and foreign visitors say they're comfortable in the plaza because it "gives them a sense of place." Canadian Consul Bill Gusen couldn't agree more. The plaza is relaxing "for the fact you can step out of an evening and amble over to what is the equivalent of the corner store," he says. "Kids can get on their bikes and ride to what amounts to the neighborhood mall."
The quarter is dotted with other community facilities. Projects include 14 mosques and a host of schools for local children. There is a 15-building, 80,000-square-meter (861,000-square-foot) international school for 1,350 foreign pupils, a giant sports club covering 94,000 square meters (more than a million square feet) and, on the edge of the Wadi Hanifah, the magnificent, serpentine Tuwaiq Palace.
The palace, which draws its name from the 800-kilometer-long (495-mile) central Arabian escarpment that passes Riyadh 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the west, "turns from a wall into a building into a wall" and blends huge tents into its structure inside and out, notes Saudi architect Basem Shihabi. The work is the result of creative efforts by Shihabi, through the Omrania architectural firm he founded, Otto Frei of West Germany and Bruno Happold of the United Kingdom.
"There was no single inspiration [for the palace]," says Shihabi. "There was a great deal of tossing thoughts of how to combine the strong physical features of the site with its strong limitations. We needed to have a green, lush space to make it happy for visitors, and we used the beautiful plateau as a long viewing stage. It would have been sad to see that wasted."
It isn't wasted.
Hugging the edge of the Wadi Hanifah, the palace offers a stunning panorama of the wadi on one side and Riyadh on the other. An 800-meter (2,600-foot) walkway surmounts the structure's flowing wall. The facility, used by both officials and private citizens for receptions, exhibitions and concerts, has already welcomed such guests as Britain's Prince of Wales and Princess Diana.
Deftly landscaped parks and picnic sites are yet another highlight of the development (see box). Some are nestled on the very edges of the wadi. They bathe the eyes and ears with the sights and sounds of cascades, shaded walkways and gardens. For the athletically oriented, there is a 30-kilometer (19-mile) jogging track, with exercise stations, around the DQ.
On a weekend last spring an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Saudis poured into the quarter to enjoy many of the facilities there. "You'd almost assume that Riyadh doesn't have any other parks," comments the RDA's Zahir Othman.
Good design is the reason, says architect Ali Shuaibi: "Good design is really for the pleasure of the people."
Arthur Clark, an Aramco staff writer, has followed the rise of the Diplomatic Quarter from his base in Dhahran.