Sumayah Al-Solaiman tells BD that Saudi Arabian architecture is about a lot more than just mega-projects in the desert

Dr. Sumayah Al-solaiman_2 crop

Source: Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture

Sumayah Al-solaiman, CEO of the Architecture and Design Commission, Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture

The head of the Saudi Arabian Architecture and Design Commission has accused western media outlets of misrepresenting the country’s architectural culture by only focusing on high profile mega-projects such as NEOM.

Sumayah Al-Solaiman told BD: “Distilling Saudi down to only NEOM doesn’t do it justice.

“Saudi is almost a continent [and] extremely varied,” said Al-Solaiman, before accusing western media coverage of the country of being “very shallow”.

Al-Solaiman, who has a PhD from Newcastle University and worked previously as an academic, was appointed CEO of the commission in 2020.

In London to promote Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the London Design Biennale, Al-Solaiman highlighted what she sees as the positive changes underway in terms of the country’s engagement with its citizens and burgeoning architectural culture.

“There are things in every project that you can criticise”, she acknowledged but said “western journalism doesn’t give the full picture”.

Al-Solaiman described the creation of the commission which she heads as one of Saudi Arabia’s “biggest cultural moves”.

One of her responsibilities is to formally regulate the architectural profession, which has historically come under the oversight of the Saudi Council of Engineers. This involves the drafting of new legislation “so that architects can be independently registered”.


Saudi Arabian pavilion at the London Design Biennale

Al-Solaiman says that the Saudi architectural profession “has a lot of catching up to do” but said her mandate was to “regulate and uplift” the sector.

A key objective is to help the Saudi profession become more competitive and start exporting services internationally. This has involved looking at “best practice” for architectural regulation internationally, adding: “We’ve been learning a lot.” 

A new “designed in Saudi” label has been launched, to help market the country’s products and services abroad.

The controversial NEOM project long predates her arrival at the commission. Al-Solaiman is keen to shift the conversation to what she argues is a growing prioritisation of sustainability across the country.

One significant policy innovation is the introduction of six core priorities which are intended to underly the future evolution of a “value driven” architecture within the country. These values include authenticity, liveability, sustainability and innovation.

Education is another major focus. She says there are over 80 programmes offering architecture and design across the country. But most of these architecture courses grew out of engineering faculties, where “architecture seems to be the middle child – a bit neglected”.

>> Also read: Saudi Arabia shows off concept designs for 170km smart city

Putting in place a new system of accreditation for architectural education is aimed at helping architecture develop its own distinct identity amongst the construction professions.

The commission is also working on school level design programmes, all the way from kindergarten to final year students. “Design is a life skill”, said Al-Solaiman, arguing that design-aware Saudis will be better equipped to become “better citizens” who are able to “take more ownership of the public realm”.

While conceding that outsiders find “lots of things to criticise” in her country, Al-Solaiman also perceives a lot of “hypocrisy” in those who portray it one-dimensionally as an autocratic petrostate.

“We’re at a point in history when we can see the country has a clear direction”, she said, before claiming that changes underway within the country are bringing a “massive level of empowerment” to ordinary Saudis.