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Why Saudi Arabia is building the tallest building in the world

Autocracies build more skyscrapers.

- May 15, 2019

Quick quiz: What’s the world’s tallest building?

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.

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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.

Why do leaders pursue wasteful spending?

Here’s the big question: Why would leaders spend public resources on projects that cost more than the revenue they are expected to generate? One straightforward answer is that such projects can be in the leader’s own personal interest. Expensive palaces, for instance, yield obvious private gains for leaders, as they may serve as comfortable residences.

But extravagant buildings serve other political purposes, and can be symbols that shape the perceptions of both foreign and domestic rivals about the regime’s capabilities or affluence. A tall, striking skyscraper brings attention and status to a country — and, in extension, to its leadership.

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Still, costly construction projects siphon away public resources that could go toward schools, hospitals or other needs. This becomes a critical point and helps explain why democracies tend to build fewer, and less wasteful, skyscrapers than autocracies.

In democracies with competitive elections, leaders may want to avoid wasteful spending, instead focusing on projects that have more popular appeal to voters — this helps governments stay in power. Independent media outlets may further strengthen this incentive, as they have freer rein in a democracy to uncover and spread information to citizens about excessive spending. In fact, our statistical analysis suggests a vigorous, free media is an important channel for mitigating wasteful skyscraper construction in democracies.

Here’s how we measure skyscrapers and regimes

Many pieces of anecdotal evidence suggest that autocrats — in different time periods and regions across the world — are especially prone to pursue socially wasteful projects. Take, for example, King Louis XIV’s gigantic palace at Versailles, which probably cost 17th and 18th century French taxpayers billions of dollars.

Another example, in the 1980s, is the Basilica of our Lady of Peace, built by Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire in his hometown, Yammasoukrou. The church replicated Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, adding an extra 30 meters — and doubling the national debt, by some estimates.

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Yet it has proved hard to find measures that are comparable across countries and time, to allow researchers to test whether there is a systematic relationship between regime type and wasteful projects. Luckily, we came across the Skyscraper Center — which records features of all skyscrapers in the world, defined as buildings taller than 150 meters. We curated the data and combined them with data on political systems from Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem).

In our analysis, we include all skyscrapers built after the year 1900 in more than 150 countries, excluding certain buildings such as industrial structures with tall chimneys and telecommunications towers. In total, we looked at 4,704 relevant skyscrapers.

Here’s what we found. Yes, there’s a substantial relationship between having an autocratic regime and the subsequent construction of new skyscrapers. This correlation is not due to other characteristics such as income level, income from oil or other natural resources, or population size. And it’s not a question of skyscrapers being more popular in particular countries — think China or Saudi Arabia — for cultural or geographic reasons. Our results hold up even when drawing only on comparisons within countries, as they become more or less democratic over time.

Autocratic buildings are more excessive

We also find clear evidence that autocracies build more excessive skyscrapers than democracies. We find a systematic pattern that there are more additional meters, measured from the highest occupied floor to the architectural top of the building, on autocratic skyscrapers. The Burj Khalifa serves as an example: While the building is 828 meters tall, 244 of these meters (29 percent) are actually “decoration” placed above the highest occupied floor.

Skyscraper construction tightly follows urbanization and economic development in democracies — suggesting there’s an economic rationale. In contrast, we find autocracies in rural countries build about equally as many skyscrapers as those in more urban countries. This finding provides yet another, indirect indication that political — rather than economic motivations — are behind many skyscraper projects in autocracies across the world.

Haakon Gjerløw is PhD fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Oslo.

Carl Henrik Knutsen is a professor of political science at the University of Oslo.