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May 16, 2019

Why Saudi Arabia is building the tallest building in the world



As reported in the Washington Post, at the moment, it’s the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 828 meters — and the building claims bragging rights about having the largest number of stories, highest outdoor observation deck, etc.

But in a couple of years, the tallest building will be located in another autocratic monarchy on the Arabian peninsula. The Jeddah Tower, under construction in Saudi Arabia, will be 1,000 meters tall, and the price tag to build it will exceed $1 billion.

Our research suggests that it’s no coincidence to find both of these two costly mega-structures in nondemocratic regimes. In a recent article in Political Research Quarterly, we discuss how autocratic leaders tend to spend more than democratic leaders on less productive projects. These projects are costly for wider society, but leaders prefer to spend the cash, for personal reasons.

Historically, grand castles, churches and temples have been typical examples of such leader-driven projects. The skyscraper, we argue, is a more recent example. The high projects costs often dictate the use of state funding or other policies to ensure the building can be completed. This means political elites often play a crucial role, in practice — particularly in autocratic countries. Financing expensive infrastructure projects, without obvious benefits for the wider population, is harder to do for leaders in democracies.

Using data on the construction of skyscrapers from across the world since 1900, we find systematic evidence that autocracies build more new skyscrapers than democracies. We also find autocracies build skyscrapers that are more wasteful. For example, autocracies systematically add more unoccupied, excessive footage on top of their skyscrapers than democracies.

Keep reading in the Washington Post

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