How Alwaleed Predicted the Current Skyscraper Boom – And Leapfrogged Everyone

The Wall Street Journal has a good recent article titled Skyscraper Builders Reach for the Stars Once Again. It’s a summary of the skyscraper building boom currently happening everywhere from the UK to China and the Middle East.

The line that got my attention was: ”Currently, there are only three buildings in the world measuring more than 500 meters, but there are plans for 20 more by 2020…”

Reading this, I had a flashback to 2006 (possibly 2007). I was in Riyadh, sitting in the Kingdom Holding board room. And I was listening to Prince Alwaleed predict a future skyscraper boom almost exactly like what the WSJ just described. And he wasn’t just making off-handed comments, he was betting his $1.2 billion skyscraper project on what turned out to be a very accurate prediction.

The topic being discussed was his 8M sqm (at that time) Jeddah real estate development. A project approximately 12% the size of Manhattan. And a mega-tower was to be the centerpiece of the project.

I remember the board room was packed with people. Booz-Allen was there, having done multiple market studies. McKinsey was there (they later did a study for alternate tower sites like Shanghai). Hines was there as a potential development partner. And architects from the US, France and the UK had been flying in and out to present designs for months. It’s all a bit of a blur so I’m not completely sure who was in the room at that particular moment.

But I do remember Alwaleed said something that has stuck in my brain ever since.

There was a discussion about how tall the skyscraper should be. Maybe 300 meters like his current Riyadh tower. That is the height most towers in the West are being built at today. Maybe 500 meters like the tallest buildings in the world at that time. For example, the new World Trade Center in New York is set for 541 meters (completion in 2013-2014).

And maybe even 800 meters. At that time, the only tower of such height was still under construction in Dubai. And it was considered just more Dubai craziness.

Ignoring virtually everyone’s counsel, Alwaleed said he wanted two scenarios figured out. One for a tower at 1,000 meters and one for a tower at 1,600 meters (i.e., one mile). People thought he was crazy. Nobody said it out loud of course but that’s what everyone were thinking. Especially the real estate developers. People sort of assumed he was just pushing the limits and would eventually compromise with a smaller tower (note: Alwaleed doesn’t compromise on his ambitions). But the idea of a 1,000-1,600 meter tower was simply inconceivable at that time.

But here is what Alwaleed said that stuck in my brain (Note: I am paraphrasing six years later. This is not an exact quote). He basically said:

“Back in 2000, everyone told me building a 300 meter skyscraper in Riyadh was crazy. Today 300-500 meter towers are everywhere. And now people are saying 500-800 meters is crazy”

“I promise you 5 years from now, 500-800 meter towers will be showing up all over the world. What we want to do is leapfrog the next generation and plan for 1,000-1,600 right now.”

Looking at the WSJ article and at the 20 towers now being planned for above 500 meters, Alwaleed had it exactly right. His +1,000 tower, $1.2 billion tower under construction in Jeddah is a generation ahead of almost everyone.

For example, the tallest building in China is currently being built in Shanghai. It is planned for 800 meters. Shenzhen’s tallest building is now under construction and set for 660 meters. There are a couple of rumors of other 1,000 meter towers under development. But I’m 95% sure Alwaleed is the only person on the planet that has been focusing on 1,000-1,6000 meter towers since 2006-7.

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A final note on the 1,600 meter, one mile tower. Kingdom is reportedly looking at alternate cities for such a tower. My guess is this will end up being in China, Russia or maybe India. Somewhere you can get a really big piece of land in a very dense market.

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