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Discovering Business
Saudi Arabia

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Building designs with a sustainable future

Shireen Hamdan, Senior Principal and Director, Populous 

A global architecture and design business that has established a reputation for innovative sports stadiums, arenas and exhibition venues is growing fast in the Middle East. Shireen Hamdan, who oversees Populous’ operations in the region, discusses the firm’s activities and opportunities.

Could you describe Populous’ history in the region?

Populous has been working in the Middle East for over 34 years, and in recent years we have opened the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai, which was the first purpose-built arena in the region. Before that we had a number of major projects, including the Dubai Autodrome, Expo 2020 Dubai and the Qatar National Convention Centre.

We have been doing a lot of work in Saudi Arabia, providing support for three of the country’s urban mega-projects and supporting the development of sports infrastructure. There is so much ambition in the country in trying to achieve its Vision 2030 goals, where they want to uplift socio-economic and living quality, so it is challenging, but a lot of fun. 

What distinguishes Populous from other architecture and design businesses? 

The stadiums and arenas we design come alive when you’ve got people in them, so the way we design alwaysbrings people to the foreground. We always work with our clients in a collaborative manner on these projects, and have being doing so for more than three decades, with more than 3,000 projects to our name. 

We have multiple disciplines within the business to deliver complete destinations that become part of the urban fabric, working with experts in place-making, revenue generation, branding opportunities, brand activation and wayfinding, as well as interior design. It becomes a holistic package that ensures a destination and an experience is all intertwined with the same DNA.  


What do you like about working in Saudi Arabia?  

I enjoy the rapid pace of change and the huge ambition to build the biggest and the best projects. That does not only mean landmark projects, but also grassroots community projects. Things are fast moving and Vision  2030 is incredibly aspirational and a cornerstone for development. 

There is huge opportunity to support grassroots development across the country, which is something I am keen to explore, with sustainable initiatives also becoming increasingly important.  

The construction side of what we are designing is quite straightforward because there have been ambitious construction projects in Saudi for decades, so the whole country is honed for developing large and challenging projects.   

How do you approach each new project and what are your key considerations?

Every time we win a new project, we start by considering the cultural nuances, and always look to do something new and iconic or challenging. We work collaboratively with clients from the outset and right through a project life cycle, developing schemes that are contextually relevant to the communities they sit in. We have a consultancy practice that helps us support clients from project inception, so that the aspirations, revenue generation and client expectations are all aligned. We also have a design-led business planning service that supports us.


What drives the fan experience in your venues?   

Fans of bygone eras had very different expectations to the fans of today. This is the Instagram and TikTok generation, so things have to be technologically integrated, with technology being a key part of our design and design development work, everything from touch screens to AR/VR technologies, and future-proofing our projects so that they remain relevant.  

Creating a unique experience to attract people to venues is becoming more and more important in developing a venue, taking into account soundscapes and fan experience. Everything needs to be that much more smooth and seamless, to create the fluid experience which today’s generation have come to expect. 

How are you designing projects to be environmentally sustainable?

Sustainability and the environment are key considerations, not just for artists but for fans as well. Coldplay announced in 2019 that they would pause touring due to concerns about the environment and the sustainability of music venues. In 2021, their first concert in more than two years was at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, which we designed and which is set to become the first net zero carbon arena in the world. 


Making a new venue environmentally sustainable requires a multi-faceted approach to design. You don’t want to design a venue that is too big, you want to have consideration for materials, the lifecycle of the building and its location. Venues that are located close to existing communities are far better and more relevant to people than ones that are sitting in the middle of nowhere. Accessibility is absolutely critical, as is construction methods and use of recycled aggregates as we did, for example, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. 

What is your approach to venue design?

We design in an inclusive manner, whether we are designing a stadium, arena or music venue. If you think about sports stadiums in the UK, 15 or 20 years ago they were more male-dominated, but if you look at the demographics now it would be roughly 60:40 male/female and substantially less in the Middle East, where our approach has been to create a more balanced and female-friendly environment with family zones. 

In terms of the approach to each venue design, these are quite specialist buildings and are all different in the ways they operate, so there is a great deal of consideration given to the needs of both spectators and performers and an approach which matches event-day requirements with non-event day needs and how the building can be utilised on a daily basis. 

How significant is Vision 2030 in driving the evolution of your Saudi business?

Vision 2030 is the blueprint for future development. We are currently looking at opening an office in Riyadh and have been hiring Saudi nationals who we have been training in the UK to understand our building typologies and who will then re-locate with us back to Saudi. That will help us to become embedded in the culture and the cities we work in, and will help our Saudi employees understand the way we work. 

Is your Middle East team made up of expatriates or do you also employ local talent?

We have always looked to employ local talent, as well as training university graduates and hiring experienced talent. This is an approach we are taking because our presence in Saudi is going to be for the long-term. We have hired a number of highly skilled individuals who have studied architecture in both Saudi and internationally, people with diverse portfolios and design skills and a real understanding of the culture, so they are a blessing to have on board. 

What is your message to any business considering Saudi Arabia for the first time?     

Commercially there are a lot of opportunities in Saudi. The approach to business has changed in the past decade and we find it quite easy and straightforward doing business here. Contracts are easy to manage, but I would recommend coming here to get an understanding of what the expectations and aspirations are. You really do have to be present to understand the country and culture. We have all become a Zoom generation over the past two years of the pandemic, but there is nothing to equal a face-to-face meeting and actually being here. 

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