The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) was established in 2018 as a closed joint-stock company, wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, to drive the development of The Red Sea Project, a regenerative tourism destination along Saudi Arabia’s west coast, and one of three giga-projects announced by HRH Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.
Could you tell us about your career to date?
From my early childhood and through my studies at university (University California Los Angeles), I have been fascinated by the Middle East, Islamic culture and the nostalgic films of Arabian nights and desert exploration. My undergraduate degree in art history, focused on Islamic art and architecture, prepared me for a career that I could never have even imagined at that time.
I’ve spent over 25 years working as a designer for some of the best international design firms in luxury hospitality. I transitioned to working for hotel brands and operators, beginning with Starwood Hotels (W Hotels), Fairmont/Raffles Hotels (Accor, Dubai), and then most recently with Marriott International, overseeing projects in the US, Middle East, and Europe. I’m completing the trifecta of hospitality design now, with TRSDC in Saudi Arabia – the developer of one of the most important and iconic tourism projects in the world today.
How did you first get involved in The Red Sea Project?
When I was first approached by TRSDC, although excited, I was a bit overwhelmed by the project, as it seemed to be such an extraordinary challenge. However, the chance to work with the most established creative designers in the world, in a place very few people have ever visited and on such a spectacular project, soon had me hooked. Once I digested the idea of taking on 16-plus hotels at one time (with a very talented and capable team, I might add), I knew this was an incredible opportunity, topping off a career full of exciting adventures. With my background in Islamic art and architecture, my experience in the Middle East and my love for sustainable design and unexplored regions, I knew I could confidently take on the challenge. I joined the company in late 2020 and, every day, have continued to learn and grow in new ways as a designer and project leader.
What does your current position involve?
As senior designer of interior architecture, I lead a team of eight design and project directors, managing over 13 of the top interior design consultants. We are overseeing the interior design of our luxury hotels, high-end residences, golf clubhouse and airport on a project site roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium. We guide the designs to meet our high quality and creative requirements, strict budgets and deadlines, while also incorporating hotel brand signatures and technical standards that are required by the operators.
It is a fast-paced development with challenging co-ordination, managing multiple synchronised deadlines for design approvals, seeking LEED accreditation, mitigating environmental issues, and preparing packaging strategies in order to ensure the building of these projects in the next two-three years. It’s an exciting task.
“The Red Sea Project has already passed significant milestones, and work is on track to welcome the first guests by the end of 2022”
Tell us how the project complements Vision 2030?
We are one of several giga-projects under the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), designed to support the implementation of the 2030 Vision of bringing a new sector of tourism to life in Saudi Arabia. Previously, the Kingdom did not rely on the tourism sector for cultural exposure or economic resources besides religious tourism and business travel. The development of the beautiful coastlines and mountain regions in which there are many amazing sites to see was previously non-existent.
Our task is to steward the growth and development of the Red Sea coastline to create unique, ‘never-seen-before’, sustainable – and even regenerative – destinations that will appeal to global tourists with different cultural backgrounds, while enhancing the environment. The Red Sea has always been explored from the Egyptian coast or Sinai Peninsula, but there are vast kilometres of unexplored coral reefs and stunning islands along the Saudi borders that are waiting to be shared with the world.
Saudi Arabia is opening its doors in a new gracious gesture of Arabian hospitality, and we are excited to be a key part of this vision.
What was the brief and your inspiration behind The Red Sea Project?
The brief was two simple words – barefoot luxury. The aim is for visitors to be able to explore the islands, sweeping desert dunes and mountainous canyons with a sense of relaxed and calm sophistication – no pretentiousness, no built-up high-rise architecture. There is also a forward-thinking approach about our projects, in that they do not resemble anything that has already been built before, whilst also honouring the pristine natural environment with our sustainable approach to design and construction. We treat the land and the ocean as a canvas on which we paint and create – the canvas is the structure that we cannot destroy, and the foundation which supports our artwork and experiences. The environment is our guide, and drives everything we do.
Tell us more about the project’s development phases, and what they will include …
The Red Sea Project has already passed significant milestones, and work is on track to welcome the first guests by the end of 2022, when the first hotels will open. Phase one, which includes 16 hotels in total, will complete in 2023. The 100-hectare Landscape Nursery, which will provide more than 15 million plants for the destination, is fully operational.
There are more than 8000 workers currently on-site, and 80km of new roads are now complete, including the new airport road, to better connect the destination. The Construction Village, capable of housing 10,000 workers, is now open, and development is progressing well at the Coastal Village, which will be home to around 14,000 people who will eventually work at the destination.
Upon completion in 2030, The Red Sea Project will comprise 50 resorts, offering up to 8000 hotel rooms and more than 1000 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites. The destination will also include an international airport, luxury marinas, golf courses, entertainment and leisure facilities.
Based on your expertise in this area, what will make this project stand out?
As the world emerges from the hiatus caused by Covid, travellers are looking for a sense of escapism, including surprising, memorable and authentic experiences. People are desperately wanting to breathe, explore and rejuvenate.
Consumers are also living and buying more responsibly to care for themselves and the planet, therefore making eco-tourism a key priority for travel. Our project will stand out because of our unique, ‘off-the-grid’ destination, innovative design approach, and commitment to sustainability and regenerative tourism – giving back to the environment and local culture, rather than just sustaining it.
To make this project stand out, we’ve hired only the best design teams in the world to bring this vision to life. Our Coral Bloom architecture by Foster + Partners alone is a testament to this endeavour, as there is nowhere else in the world where 11 luxury hotels can co-exist within one ecological architectural statement. It’s a form of true artistry, and a statement that no other destination has ever set out to accomplish.
Can you tell us more about that development?
This iconic concept by Foster + Partners envelops our hub, Shurayrah Island, a coral reef fantasy brought to reality through underwater, garden-inspired architectural forms with a light-touch approach to construction. The trademarks of each hotel are the unique rooftops and canopies which form the magical coral reef set into our beautiful Arabian desert island – whether it’s a nautilus shell forming a luxury village or a Dune Camp with rippling shade structures that replicate the ocean swells, Coral Bloom is a remarkable statement. The interiors, of course, will complement the reef concept, with a calm, casual refinement of luxury signatures that create a sense of respite and escape for our guests.
It is rumoured that the two projects will have 11,000 hotel rooms in total — 8000 at The Red Sea Project and 3000 at AMAALA. If these figures are correct, which hotel brands are confirmed (or due to confirm)?
At this stage, we cannot disclose the actual brand names, but rest assured, we are partnering with the top international luxury hoteliers who strive to make regenerative and sustainable tourism part of their strategy and offering. Each brand is bringing a thoughtful guest experience and positioning to the hotel designs – whether it is through wellness programmes, artistic and authentic culinary concepts or even signature service rituals and touchpoints that enhance our ‘barefoot luxury’ approach. All brands have a global reach in terms of loyalty programmes, and vary from entry-level luxury to hyper-luxury positionings, and they will provide a diverse and dynamic portfolio for both the Red Sea and AMAALA developments.
“The brief was two simple words – barefoot luxury”
How important is design and architecture when developing a new project?
Travel has become a form of entertainment, into which the consumer will invest their hard-earned money and time to create a unique journey for themselves and their families. I will use performance art for this analogy: our architecture sets the stage; the interior design creates the scene; and the operations team brings the melody and choreography to our performance. They must all work together harmoniously to create a successful experience, which is why we seek to work collaboratively across all disciplines, and not in design silos.
The design and architecture must focus on the technical aspects of the buildings or spaces as well as the experiential aspects, so that the hotels or facilities function with intuitive ease. The last thing we want to do is create phenomenal-looking buildings and spaces that don’t function for our operators and guests.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel design?
In the last 20 years, lifestyle design has become a much more prominent positioning than classic hotel design, especially in the luxury sector, and that is simply because our lives and patterns of travel are quickly changing. Within the last 10 years, we’ve also seen a huge growth in independent lifestyle hotels and ‘collection’ brands, with properties that each have their own personality and identity, adapting and appealing to new ways of living, meeting, and socialising. Even the more traditional brands are changing strategies to appeal to a younger, more affluent, mobile and discerning market with this lifestyle appeal.
Hotels are starting to break down the walls between private and public spaces, with food and beverage areas becoming ‘hubs’ for the local community. Co-working and meeting spaces are becoming more social, more comfortable and more leisure focused, while guestrooms are transitioning to flexible zones for work, exercise, and rest.
Over the next five years, we’ll see the branded residential (apartment hotels) sector become extremely popular, as global business travellers are looking to take their lives on the road and not just in the professional capacity. It is already becoming a huge global trend following the success of homeshare sites such as Airbnb and One Fine Stay, etc. Hotel companies are noticing this and adapting accordingly.
Do you believe simple design has become luxurious?
Absolutely. The traveller who can afford a luxury experience is no longer looking for ‘bells and whistles’ or ostentatious environments. Simplicity can also equate to generosity, and this is what luxury travel is about – giving people space, privacy, authenticity and quality. Even in high-end residential design, we see a desire for our environments to be uncomplicated and more organised, utilising technology to assist us in deleting clutter and excess, making simpler choices and making our homes run more efficiently. Our lives have become so busy, and sometimes chaotic – therefore homes and hotels become havens of simplicity.
‘Experiences’ with travel have also become the new commodity on which people are basing their estimation of value and investment choices. Opulence is replaced by authenticity, and formality is being replaced by sincere hospitality or adventure. This is where simplicity thrives, and human connection becomes invaluable.
Turning to the topic of authenticity of experience, how do you approach each project?
When it comes to authenticity, we are all about a ‘sense of place’, and a forward-thinking approach to creating unique modern projects. We are not looking to the past for inspiration, except for where it makes sense. For example, our inland resorts are quite contemporary and sensible in their design approach, allowing the generosity of Arabian hospitality to be truly showcased. You will see a hint of the Nabatean and Bedouin influences within the designs, offering a nostalgic nod to the past, but many of the references are translated into a modern interpretation, which we believe our guests will appreciate.
Travellers want to feel a part of the local culture, without the experience feeling gimmicky or ‘reproduced’. Therefore, authenticity always comes through inspiration and interpretation – never forced – while honouring our regional heritage and reflecting a modern way of living.
“The traveller who can afford a luxury experience is no longer looking for ‘bells and whistles’ or ostentatious environments”
How is lighting design influencing the resort experience?
TRSDC is embracing a world where the mitigation of light pollution is part of our pure environmental commitment. Our lighting director, Myriam Patricia Lopez Yanez, is leading an exciting initiative to minimise light pollution from our resorts and villages along the Red Sea coastline so that the stars remain as visible and clear as they were to the ancient Arabian navigators and first astronomers who used them to guide their ships and desert journeys. We sometimes take lighting for granted within our designs, but we don’t realise how damaging artificial light can be to our natural environment and guest experience.
Within our hotels, the goal is to keep lighting as simple as possible, hiding all direct exposure of light sources except for decorative and task lighting. We will be utilising basic smart solutions for lighting controls and destination information access, but not overtaxing the end-user’s ability to manage the system.
Many animals in our project area, like birds, turtles and even insects, are naturally photoperiodic, meaning their behaviour responses change due to light. This affects everything they do, from reproduction to eating and resting. This means light introduced to their habitat can alter their natural cycles in a harmful way.
This is the reason why we are working with top lighting consultants to ensure this is approached with ease and great care, while also including our sustainability and energy-saving requirements in all assets.
Are there any architects or designers you admire?
This is a difficult question, as there is so much great talent out there. We are currently working with over 16 different designers and architects within our development, and I admire all of them in many ways – from Oppenheim Architects, partnering with Studio Paolo Ferrari to bring a high level of brutalist sophistication in our Desert Rock mountain resort, to Killa Design, partnering with Rockwell Group on our overwater fantasy of futuristic ‘orbs’ at Sheybarah Island.
Our consultants continually push the realm of innovation through their creativity and imagination, and it truly keeps me in a state of awe.
I’m also very excited to be working with Jouin Manku on one of our landmark assets for Coral Bloom – they are bringing their unique artistic statement to a beautiful resort experience, which will surely keep guests spellbound. Their approach to a project is so well planned, and almost spiritual in nature. I find myself learning something new every day through the eyes of our consultants.