King Khaled International Airport

The vast majority of people visiting Riyadh arrive through one of the biggest and, possibly, most beautiful airport complexes in the world. Yet with many international flights arriving in the early hours, and with the immigration and baggage formalities to sort out, one could be forgiven for not paying a great deal of attention at the time to the airport buildings themselves – which is a pity given the breath-taking design of the overall concept.

Inside the domestic terminal, for example, during daylight hours, sunlight pours through gaps in a great tiered roof of 72 curved triangular panels, 33 metres (108 ft) high, bathing the concourse in a soft natural light. Water cascades down tiled banks into a pool and fig trees grow out of the main staircase.


King Khaled Airport was opened in December 1983, and the architects – Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Inc. of St. Louis and San Francisco – came up with a complex of structures that serves as an airport, art gallery, garden and sanctuary.

The airport site stretches across 225 square kilometres (87 square miles), and the terminal complex and support buildings are beige and off-white to blend with the desert terrain. The tiered construction of the four main passenger terminals and Royal Pavilion suggest low-slung tents, whilst the control tower and central mosque, with its immense dome and single minaret, stand out in sharp contrast.

Construction is based on a design of triangles and hexagons. The passenger terminals are, in the main, triangular whilst the roof panels are gently curved triangles, supported on steel arches braced by triangles that frame double-insulated windowpanes. Below in the passenger areas, carpets pick up the triangular pattern and lights shining upwards are contained in large, stainless steel canisters in bundles of three.


The Royal Pavilion is also triangular – as is the stem of the control tower. The mosque, on the other hand, is a huge hexagon. It can hold 5,000 worshippers, and its geodesic dome – which measures 33 metres (108 ft) across and is triangulated by more than a thousand panels of shiny brass – is supported by six columns. Outside, there is a hexagonal courtyard – which can hold up to 4,000 more people – surfaced with crushed stone laid out in yet more hexagons and triangles.

Driving to and from the airport, you cannot help but be impressed by the planting of more than 300 varieties of trees, shrubs, flowers and creepers along the access roads, on embankments and in or around the terminals. Nearly every outdoor plant at the airport is watered individually through a network of underground drip lines. To conserve water, treated effluent – so-called ‘grey water’ – from the airport’s own sewage plant irrigates the greenery, with fertilisers and nutrients injected into the system as required.

King Khaled International Airport is situated some 35kms to the north of central Riyadh. Take the eastern ring road northbound, or the northern ring road eastbound; and then at junction 8 , dominated by the Sabic building, your route is well signposted. A couple of kilometres from this junction is a control post with an archway commemorating ‘100 Years of KSA’ and you will arrive at the airport some 10 minutes later.

Warning: speed limits are strictly enforced on this stretch of road and it is very common to see ‘miscreants’ hauled over by the traffic police!

Airport : 24 57.5’ N; 46 42.3’ E

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