Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) was established in July 2017 to preserve Diriyah’s history, celebrate its community and develop the historic site into one of the world’s greatest gathering places, creating a hub for Saudi Arabian culture and heritage.

What does your current position involve?

In June 2018 I was appointed by His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to be the first CEO of the newly created Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA). The project is aimed at restoring and reimagining the ancestral home of the original Saudi state into one of the world’s greatest gathering places. My role in the project is to formulate and oversee the implementation of our master plans to achieve this goal, and oversee the enterprise throughout its development. Upon completion, the development area will encompass world-class cultural, entertainment, retail and residential assets, employing more than 55,000 people.

The DGDA is one of the Kingdom’s giga-projects. What is your grand vision here, and how do you expect it will change Saudi Arabia?

As part of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030, Diriyah will welcome visitors from near and afar, becoming one of the world’s foremost cultural, historic, lifestyle destinations. 

I always say ‘there is only one Diriyah’ – it is an absolutely magical place filled with centuries of rich culture and heritage, from being the birthplace of the Kingdom and the House of Al Saud to the home of the Jewel of the Kingdom, At-Turaif. This special site was first designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 due to several qualities including its oasis, architectural and decorative style and its distinction as an area representing a significant phase of human development, and we are delighted to share that it has been painstakingly restored ahead of its forthcoming opening. To welcome visitors to At-Turaif is a milestone, and sets Diriyah apart for many reasons – it is a globally significant destination, which even the domestic market has not had the opportunity to visit in recent history.

Diriyah is looking to become a powerhouse of Saudi culture and commerce, where people from across the globe can come to gather, explore, learn and shop. Saudi Arabia is projected to bring 100 million visitors per year to Saudi Arabia by 2030, of which we anticipate over one quarter of those visitors coming to Diriyah.

“We’ve completed the concept masterplan for Phase 2 of Diriyah Gate, with concept design for more than 30 key assets including ultra-luxury hotels, museums and major retail destinations”

We are operating a local-first strategy, aiming to attract our Diriyah and Riyadh communities initially, and then the wider KSA, GCC and international markets, respectively. However, we are confident the diverse cultural, historic and lifestyle offering, unmatched public spaces (including the careful renewal of Wadi Hanifah), commitment to sustainability and globally recognised brand partners will attract the curious, independent traveller. 

More broadly as a destination, the Kingdom represents one of the world’s final frontiers, sparking intrigue in those who are keen to be among the first to witness great change in its infancy as an internationally minded destination. When that time comes, we will be ready with an unmatched hospitality and tourism offering that will excite and inspire all those who visit.

Tell us how DGDA complements Vision 2030?

Since His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman first announced Vision 2030 in April 2016, DGDA has implemented successful activities during our pivotal first three-year inception phase (2017-20). Highlights include hosting the Royal inaugural ceremony, and our host status in G20, welcoming media, leaders and dignitaries to At-Turaif to witness the iconic G20 Leaders Photo image projection onto the walls of Salwa Palace. 

In addition, we are especially proud of our achievements in the employment space – in particular our benchmarking of Saudisation and female employment ratios. Upon completion, the development will add 27 billion Saudi riyals to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s GDP, and provide 55,000 job opportunities to local Saudis, giving back to the community and furthering inclusive development. Opening At-Turaif to tourists for the first time forms part of the Vision 2030 plan to attract 100 million tourists per year to Saudi Arabia by 2030, of which we anticipate over one quarter of those visitors (27 million) coming to Diriyah. 

Does DGDA compete with other projects such as AMAALA or Neom? Or do they complement each other?

While we are individual projects with unique propositions, there is a comradery among the different developments as we’re all contributing to Vision 2030. It is our objective to successfully communicate the rich heritage and culture of Diriyah, an iconic global gathering place, which is the birthplace of the Kingdom and the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s story. 

We’re each revealing centuries of history, learning about the storied journey of Saudi Arabia as a kingdom, as a people and as a destination for future tourism. To successfully harness our culture – most of which is unknown to the international community – we all must band together to position the Kingdom as an enticing, iconic destination to uncover.

“It’s correct that we will have approximately 3000 hotel rooms upon completion – the world’s best hospitality brands are coming to Diriyah, and we look forward to announcing these names soon”

Tell us more about the project’s development phases and what they will include …

His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman tasked us with delivering Wadi Safar and Diriyah Gate within 3-4 years, a target we are on track to meet. Notably, there are 103 different projects we are working on with this development, but our key focuses in 2020 have been the retail and cultural heart of Diriyah – particularly King Salman square and the mosque. 

Following the pandemic, we are looking to introduce Diriyah to Saudis first, while international travel recovers. By staggering our focus in this way, a unique opportunity to introduce Saudi to Saudis presents itself. 

Over the past year, there have been numerous successes, with the completion of the detailed masterplan for Wadi Safar and Diriyah Gate in line with His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030. Drawing on the region’s rich past, the development will be completed in Najdi-inspired architecture, newly adapted for 21st-century living. Upon completion, our development project will be the Middle East’s most walkable urban environment.

We’ve completed the concept masterplan for Phase 2 of Diriyah Gate, with concept design for more than 30 key assets including ultra-luxury hotels, museums and major retail destinations. Later this year, we will launch our F&B retail precinct – Bujairi Dining Destination. 

Bujairi will be home to Riyadh’s new premium dining hub, enjoying uninterrupted views of At-Turaif, the Diriyah Art Oasis – one of Saudi Arabia’s first art centres dedicated to contemporary art – and a luxury hotel, Samhan Heritage Hotel. UNESCO World Heritage Site At-Turaif is truly the jewel of the Kingdom – a culturally-significant mud-brick city that has been sensitively restored to welcome local and international visitors imminently. 

It is rumoured that once the project is completed in 2030, there will be approximately 3000 luxury hotel rooms – is this right, and if so, which brands would you hope to include on this outstanding project?

We’re fortunate to have had many world-renowned partners sign on to be a part of this outstanding development, offering an unparalleled opportunity to experience traditional and contemporary Saudi culture, hospitality, heritage and lifestyle. The enthusiasm expressed by our global partners signals our shared confidence in the vision of Diriyah and our ambitions to become the gateway to the Kingdom, and we will realise the vision for a diverse, world-class offering for hospitality in the Kingdom. It’s correct that we will have approximately 3000 hotel rooms upon completion – the world’s best hospitality brands are coming to Diriyah, and we look forward to announcing these names soon. 

Based on your expertise in this area, what will make this project stand out?

Diriyah’s uniqueness will derive from its traditional Najdi development style, which will honour the history of Diriyah and seamlessly integrate into the site’s cultural environment, comprising the Kingdom’s most walkable collection of heritage and culture offerings – including more than 20 Saudi cultural attractions alongside a bustling lifestyle hub. From my experience, the aim to preserve Diriyah’s cultural integrity while creating a global tourism and hospitality destination is truly exceptional. The new streetscape will honour the history of Diriyah with beautiful, fully indigenous landscaping as well as bike tracks, horse bridle paths and natural shading for pedestrian walkways, while still attracting 27 million visitors annually.

I wanted to touch on investment opportunities – is now the right time to invest in KSA?

The pace of change in the Kingdom is palpable, driven by the vision and strategy of His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. In particular, the hospitality and tourism industry in Saudi Arabia is beginning to emerge, which is incredibly exciting. The industry is attracting many of its youth population and its female citizens who are now able to work, and we are proud of the opportunities we are giving to the Saudi workforce as they navigate this great change in their country.

The long-term goal is to welcome 27 million visitors by 2030. This is a 75 billion Saudi riyal (US $20b) lifestyle and hospitality development, which on completion will feature world-class cultural, entertainment, retail, hospitality, educational, office and residential purposes, adding 27 billion Saudi riyals ($7.2b) to Saudi Arabia’s GDP, and providing 55,000 job opportunities. 

Given that we are located within 15 minutes of Riyadh’s city centre, we see ourselves as the custodians of a true gateway to the Kingdom, building an iconic destination for the citizens of Saudi Arabia as well as overseas visitors. Due to our proximity to Riyadh and King Khalid International Airport, we also have the opportunity to become the entry to tourism in Saudi Arabia. My belief is that At-Turaif will become synonymous with tourism, and an internationally recognised global landmark in the way that the Colosseum is to Rome, or the Acropolis is to Athens. Investors have an incredible opportunity to be a part of shaping this evolution.

“His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 aims to attract 100 million tourists to KSA by 2030”

In your current role, what keeps you up at night? Adding to that, what excites you most about what you do?

To be a part of this revolutionary project was an exciting and incomprehensible prospect at first. However, I joined DGDA as CEO on the basis of my hospitality background, charged with harnessing the unique offering of Diriyah for local and international visitors. I, and my team, are custodians of Diriyah, as we open the gateway to the global community. Welcoming visitors to the Kingdom and providing an impeccable local and visitor hospitality experience is a goal that we will realise in the coming years. Harnessing the potential of this incredible country and the individual offering of Diriyah is the most challenging and enticing project I have ever worked on.

What key milestones can we expect in the coming year?

I am pleased to share that we maintained our construction schedule throughout, bringing us to a successful start for 2021. This continued acceleration has meant we have gone from strength to strength, reflected in our ambitious plans. For example, we’re projecting a +450% spend on top of 2020 already, with a similar growth level for 2022. With assets starting to come online towards the end of this year, we’ll undoubtedly feel a shift from planning and construction into delivery – with world-class execution welcoming global audiences our core objective for 2022 and beyond.

What was your background prior to becoming a successful developer?

I’ve always been involved in global development projects similar to DGDA, across a variety of roles and industries. I’ve mostly specialised in hotel and property profiling, all of which have achieved large commercial success – including Atlantis, One&Only, Four Seasons and Hilton Hotels. For 20 years I was president of Kerzner Entertainment Group, raising the profile and positioning of its properties in South Africa, the Bahamas, Dubai, Morocco, Mauritius, Mexico and the Maldives. I also served as COO of Sun City – the unique South African resort complex built by Sol Kerzner in the 1990s.

How important is design and architecture when developing a new project?

Authentic Najdi construction materials and techniques have been adapted for modern contemporary living. We are embarking on building one of the world’s foremost mud-brick cities, and are committed to the authenticity of what we are recreating. The site is a truly special place in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with the buildings being created in the traditional stone and mud-brick Najdi architectural style to reflect its surroundings. 

Drawing on the region’s rich past, the Najdi-inspired Diriyah Gate reflects the Najdi architecture of 300 years past, newly adapted for 21st-century living. All the museums will be built in the Najdi vernacular architecture, with world-class design consultants procured through design competitions for each museum. The museums will house state-of-the-art exhibitions, creating a contrast with the traditional architecture – for example, the Digital Art Museum will house digital artworks by contemporary Saudi and international artists, within a Najdi-style building. 

Have you noticed any particular trend in hotel design?

Sustainability and transformational travel continue to be growing trends in hotel design and are key factors for DGDA, as we look to provide an unmatched hospitality offering that meets these expectations with experiences that mentally fulfil our guests. We are committed to initiatives such as this that dovetail with Vision 2030, which sets out to preserve the environment and natural resources and safeguard the environment through a number of initiatives and measures including increasing recycling, optimising water resources, reducing pollution and rehabilitating natural resources.

We can see this reaffirmed in the trend and sentiment data – that people are desperate to travel, but that they want to do so in a different way. Taking fewer trips but staying for longer, staying in independent, community-focused accommodation that benefits residents, focusing on destinations that aren’t suffering under the weight of capacity management issues, and being more mindful of the resources we use and how we spend our money while away.

Consumer behaviour had already started to shift towards flying less, vacationing more ethically and making more environmental and socially responsible choices when in-destination. It is these trends that will influence how we envision our hotel and hospitality districts, and how we fuse traditional Saudi heritage, our unique and distinct Najdi architectural style, and the modern amenities travellers expect of international destinations.

What do you consider to be your biggest success in your career to date?

During my career, I’ve been fortunate to have developed some of the world’s most famous and successful lifestyle brands in tourism and entertainment, providing leadership that was instrumental to the successful globalisation of Forbes Travel Guide as well as in the conceptualisation and operations of breakthrough properties such as Atlantis, One&Only Resorts, Ian Schrager Hotels, Four Seasons and Hilton Hotels. My contribution to the hospitality industry is the greatest legacy I have created as part of my career. I have recently been honoured to have been shortlisted for the Corporate Hotelier of the World award by HOTELS magazine, which at this point in my five decade-long career of service is most humbling, and a real highlight for me. 

What’s been your greatest risk?

With each chapter of my career, I’ve assumed the risk required to grow personally and professionally. Each move is an unknown, but it propels you to realise your potential and greatest ambitions in life. Over five decades I have been fortunate to work with some incredible people, and assume a leadership position for global tourism and hospitality at large. Making the decisions to instrumentally impact and evolve an industry I am so passionate about is always a risk, and one that I am humbled to share has paid off.

Where do you see tourism in Saudi Arabia in the next five years?

The aspirations and targets for Saudi Arabia will drive the country to be a major competitor in the global tourism market. This is a country of staggering beauty, with varied landscapes and a huge variety of natural assets and tourism potential. His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 aims to attract 100 million tourists to KSA by 2030, and we’re looking forward to making this a confirmed reality.