The Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter’s Desert Parks

Rock art image: Erik Mustonen
Limestone rock art in the desert parks of the Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter
image: Erik Mustonen

History of the Diplomatic Quarter

In the 1970s the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia decided to relocate the international diplomatic community from Jeddah on the coast, to the capital, Riyadh, in the center of the country. This was to include not only all the foreign embassies, diplomatic residences and offices of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs but also all the residential, commercial, recreational and other support facilities that would make up a complete, self-sufficient neighborhood on the edge of the city of Riyadh. A German planning firm, Albert Speer and Partners, developed the master plan with Boedeker, Wagenfeld & Partners (initially Boedeker, Boyer, Wagenfeld & Partners) providing landscape architectural input.

Key Plan image: Erik Mustonen
Key plan for the Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter
image: Erik Mustonen

The official language of the project was English, in which the largely American-educated Saudis were comfortable, but the Germans were not. Erik Mustonen was brought in by BW&P with the title of “Project Group Leader and Chief Designer for Project Abroad.” In addition to serving as project manager, he also prepared all reports and other written communications sent to the client over a two-year period from 1980 to 1982.

Environmental Challenges

Saudi Arabia is a challenging place for a landscape architect. Summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees with very low humidity, and dust storms can sweep in, blotting out the sun. In the 1980s, water was in extremely short supply. Pumping of ground water was lowering the water table by 10 meters (33 feet) per year, although desalinization plants would later be constructed on the coast with pipelines carrying water nearly 400 km (250 miles) to Riyadh in the center of the country. It might not rain for 10 years, but distant events such as volcanic eruptions on the other side of the world, or global climate change, could bring continuous downpours lasting several days. Storm drainage systems were inadequate or nonexistent, and people could drown in their cars in freeway underpasses.

Flood in Saudi Arabia image: Erik Mustonen
Flood in Saudi Arabia
image: Erik Mustonen

Moreover, grazing goats could decimate ornamental plantings.

Goats pose a risk to image: Erik Mustonen
Goats pose a risk to plantings
image: Erik Mustonen

Landscape of the Diplomatic Quarter

The public landscape areas for the Diplomatic Quarter consisted of three types:

  • Intensive Landscape Areas: Highly developed plantings in small, irrigated parks and along boulevards.
  • Extensive Landscape Areas: Non-irrigated desert park areas along the escarpment on the western periphery of the site with views down into the valley of Wadi Hanifa.
  • The Earth Berm: A constructed landscape feature along the eastern edge of the site providing screening from an adjacent freeway and serving as a spoils pile for huge quantities of rubble limestone being excavated for site infrastructure.

BW&P designed all of these, and Erik Mustonen was in charge of the Extensive Landscape Areas and Earth Berm.

Design Concept

Unlike the Lawrence of Arabia scenes of drifting sand dunes (erg desert), the area around Riyadh is mainly a hard, rocky plateau (hamada desert).

Wadi Hanifah image: Erik Mustonen
Valley of Wadi Hanifa
image: Erik Mustonen
Escarpment image: Erik Mustonen
image: Erik Mustonen

The Extensive Landscape Areas highlighted the features of the escarpment by carving into and building up from the native limestone. Sketch details illustrated the basic techniques, and performance specifications provided guidance.

Steps detail image: Erik Mustonen
Steps detail
image: Erik Mustonen

The performance specifications for the project ended up being a volume of 600 pages, covering the innovative design and taking the place of construction standards, which did not otherwise exist. Much of the detailed design, however, actually had to be developed on the fly, by a full-time landscape architect on site during construction. The result was the creation of benches, shade structures, steps and “rock art” – all made of limestone, in an organic-appearing, flowing form.

Rock trail image: Erik Mustonen
Rock trail
image: Erik Mustonen
Rock bench image: Erik Mustonen
Rock bench
image: Erik Mustonen

Planting was limited to a few native species that required no irrigation; these species were also generally thorny and/or poisonous to ward off grazing goats.

The Earth Berm was built up from rubble limestone excavated from utility trenches, road bases and building foundations and basements. Although the prime contractor had suggested that this material could just be dumped over the edge of the escarpment, the designers pointed out that it would be more useful if it were instead shaped into an attractive and useable landform.

Berm construction image: Erik Mustonen
Berm construction
image: Erik Mustonen

Since infrastructure excavation was the first work done on the site, the landscape architectural design had to be fast-tracked to stay ahead of the bulldozers and dump trucks. The final design had the berm transition from 8m (26 feet) to a high point of 18m (69 feet) above the base, with terraces to collect rain water. This portion of the project included limited irrigated planting along with hiking and fitness trails, steps, shaded seating alcoves and viewpoint areas.

Berm alcove image: Erik Mustonen
Berm alcove
image: Erik Mustonen
Berm image: Erik Mustonen
image: Erik Mustonen

Working in a Monty Python World

With various European consultants working for a Saudi Arabian client on a project with a Korean prime contractor, and Syrian and other sub-contractors and laborers from all over Asia and the Middle East, the Diplomatic Quarter was a cultural mash-up that would have been fertile ground for Monty Python. Cultural failures to communicate were the norm, there were no commonly accepted construction standards or building codes, and everyone would try to get away with everything. One example of coordination chaos came from the fact that the Earth Berm was to be adjacent to a freeway that was being designed concurrently along the eastern edge of the site. All of this was government land, and it was not clear where the actual boundary between these two projects needed to be. Italian engineers designing the freeway brushed off requests for a copy of their plans. In an incident illustrative of the Monty Python environment that prevailed, a German site supervisor familiar with the ways things were done suggested that the landscape architect should tell the freeway designers that, since they would not tell us where their freeway was going to be, we would show them where our earth berm was going to be and then have a Filipino survey crew drive stakes into what was obviously part of the roadbed. This resulted in the plans being produced immediately.

Post-Construction Evaluation

Returning to the site twenty years later, it was gratifying to see that the project had been largely successful, but there were some surprises. Both the Extensive Landscape Areas and the Earth Berm were well used and much appreciated both by the foreigners of the international diplomatic community and the people of Riyadh generally.

Berm users image: Erik Mustonen
Berm users
image: Erik Mustonen
Shaded trail image: Erik Mustonen
Shaded trail
image: Erik Mustonen

These areas were notable for Saudi Arabia in that they provided facilities for outdoor recreation, and men and women could use them without being separated. The design concepts had in fact been extended into expansion areas to the south.

A surprise was that the Extensive Landscape Areas, which had been designed without irrigation, were in some cases being inundated by run-off from excess irrigation in the embassy compounds above, resulting in some pathways being overgrown with overly abundant vegetation.

image: Erik Mustonen
image: Erik Mustonen

Post 9-11 Changes

A few months after the above visit, everything changed. Restrictive security measures brought in following 9-11 severely impacted the site. Foreign embassies, ambassadors’ residences and members of the international diplomatic community came to be viewed as high-value targets. The formerly open, attractive views from the Extensive Landscape Areas down to the Wadi Hanifa valley became cluttered with a chain-link and razor wire boundary fence. Access to the entire Diplomatic Quarter, including its public landscape areas, became strictly controlled, and all access to the Earth Berm was prohibited because rocket-propelled grenades could be launched from its heights. None of this could have been foreseen twenty years before.

Lessons Learned

Working overseas, especially in developing nations, requires an innovative, resourceful approach, an understanding of different cultures and ecosystems, and an ability to perform in a variety of roles. Rather than being a specialist, you are often expected to “shoot from the hip from horseback” (like in the old Westerns) and in more than one discipline. But it helps to have a sense of humor and an appreciation for Monty Python, and to realize that you cannot anticipate everything.

image: Erik Mustonen
image: Erik Mustonen

by Erik S. Mustonen, ASLA, International Practice PPN Chair

3 thoughts on “The Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter’s Desert Parks

  1. flahertylandscape August 25, 2014 / 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the update on the Diplomatic Quarter, Erik. We ought to talk sometime about KSA in the 80s and KSA today.

    Good effort–good read!

  2. Margarita Gonzalez Cardenas September 7, 2016 / 5:12 am

    Mr. Mustonen. I am doing a research on Riyadh’s urban spaces. I would like to include DQ’s neighborhood parks. I would like to ask you a couple of questions. Kindly let me know how to contact you.

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