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Diriyah: Transforming Saudi Arabia’s birthplace into a global cultural hub

Mohamed Saad, President of Diriyah Company (DevCo), in an exclusive interview shares how Diriyah aims to become the top lifestyle destination in Saudi Arabia

Diriyah: Transforming Saudi Arabia’s birthplace into a global cultural hub

Diriyah, with a valuation of $63 billion according to real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank, is one of the region’s most valuable projects. As the birthplace of the kingdom and the ancestral residence of the Al Saud royal family, it holds immense historical significance. Hence, we sat down with Mohamed Saad, President of Diriyah Company (DevCo) to discuss the significant construction milestones they have achieved, and how Diriyah is being transformed into a global tourism destination rooted in heritage and culture.

What is the vision and mission of Diriyah Company (DevCo), and how does it fit into the broader goals of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030?

At Diriyah, we believe we are uniquely visionary and culturally rooted, connecting individuals, their heritage, and the world. As developers, our goal is to create spaces that have a positive impact on people’s lives.

We at Diriyah Company are building and shaping ‘The City of Earth’, contributing to the diversification of the Saudi economy and aiming for a non-oil GDP of 65 per cent by 2030. Enhancing the tourism sector in Diriyah is pivotal for boosting tourism revenue to reach 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP within the next decade.

Diriyah is a culture-led gigaproject playing a significant role in helping Saudi Arabia achieve Vision 2030. It goes beyond being just a visitor attraction, as it is a fully integrated development creating 178,000 jobs and homes for 100,000 residents. The project also includes 41 new hotels, shopping precincts, arts and cultural centres, and world-class sporting facilities, showcasing its unprecedented scope and scale.

Upon completion, Diriyah will emerge as Saudi Arabia’s premier lifestyle destination to live, stay, work, shop, play, learn, and celebrate the kingdom’s rich heritage and culture.

What initiatives have you undertaken to attract international tourists?

We are transforming over 14 square kilometres—an area the size of the city of Geneva—into one of the region’s foremost destinations, reflecting its history through engaging and inspiring heritage, education, shopping, and dining experiences. The project is of an unprecedented scale and aims to provide international tourists with an opportunity to immerse themselves in centuries of heritage alongside modern amenities.

Landscaping and sustainability are at the heart of what we do, and visitors will also be able to enjoy a truly ‘green’ experience in the future when they visit our recently completed Bujairi Park and the beauty of Wadi Hanifah. We are also planting over 6.5 million trees, plants, and shrubs to ensure an unrivalled visit to the place where the modern Saudi state was born.

Can you describe the key projects currently underway at Diriyah, and how they will contribute to developing the area as a cultural and tourism destination?

Diriyah is already open to the public. In December 2022, we reopened the UNESCO World Heritage site of At-Turaif to the world, which had been carefully restored and preserved along with Bujairi Terrace. Bujairi Terrace offers breathtaking views of At-Turaif and boasts a wide array of top-notch restaurants and venues. Since its opening, it has welcomed over two million visitors and has ambitious plans to reach 50 million annual visits in the future.

But this is just the beginning. We plan to have a total of 41 hotels on-site, with construction already underway for several, such as the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Oberoi, Six Senses, and Aman. These hotels will offer a range of stay options to cater to different preferences and needs.

Other iconic landmarks include the purpose-built Royal Diriyah Opera House, a multipurpose 20,000-seat Diriyah Arena, a Greg Norman-designed golf course, the Royal Diriyah Equestrian and Polo Club, as well as a host of museums and art galleries in our specially created Arts and Cultural districts.

The masterplan also includes the delivery of homes to 100,000 people, a new office environment for businesses, and retail outlets, including in the recently announced Diriyah Square.

What are the main differences in scope and business opportunities between Diriyah and other major gigaprojects currently being developed in Saudi Arabia?

Each gigaproject has its distinctive personality and wide-ranging business opportunities. However, we at Diriyah Company offer a unique development opportunity and enormous potential for the construction sector, as few projects have the scale, ambition, historical, and heritage value of what we are building in Diriyah, the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

We are also placing sustainable development strategies at the heart of how we build and operate our varied assets. The first phase of Diriyah’s masterplan has been awarded the internationally renowned USGBC LEED certification at the platinum level, and the company is the first in the Middle East to receive this globally recognised, prestigious symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership. It is also an active participant in Saudi Arabia’s sustainability certification program, MOSTADAM, and Diriyah has also earned the SITES Gold pre-certification for the Wadi Safar site within the overall project development.

We have also partnered with Partanna, a company focused on sustainable development and carbon-negative building materials, to explore using their products in the Diriyah project. The company’s sustainability strategies also allow it to contribute to sustainable development goals, particularly in energy efficiency (SDG Goal 7) and sustainable cities (SDG Goal 11).

What are some of the challenges that you have faced, and how have you addressed them?

Any gigaproject of the scale and complexity of Diriyah anywhere in the world will inevitably face some challenges from time to time. But it is how we react to challenges and overcome them in a fast and efficient manner that is crucial.

As a developer, we actively address challenges and work closely with partners and suppliers to overcome them. For example, in supply chain management, we host networking events regularly to bring together contractors, fit-out contractors, suppliers, and vendors. These events help strengthen partnerships, onboard new partners, diversify our pool of potential partners, and proactively resolve any hurdles that may arise during the project.

Besides, when you consider that we are looking to build what is effectively a brand-new city—it requires an agile and flexible approach. This includes the design, awarding, development, leasing, and operation of the city, with multiple streams running in parallel and being strongly integrated to minimise schedule and cost overruns.