Saudi Arabia looks to its past for a new megadevelopment that pulls in tourists while promoting the kingdom’s culture and economic development.
Centuries ago, Diriyah was the cultural and commercial crossroads of the Middle East—birthplace of the first Saudi state and the original home of the royal family. Now the government-sponsored Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) is looking to put the city back in the spotlight with a massive mixed-use development designed to showcase more than 300 years of history through heritage, education, retail and dining experiences.
Combining traditional Najdi architectural typology—rooftop terraces, decorated doors, large courtyards—and new urbanism, the site on the outskirts of Riyadh is meant to celebrate the destination’s rich heritage while kindling an emotional connection with visitors and residents.
“There is only one Diriyah,” says Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the authority. “Only this place can tell the story of the Saudi people and inspire new generations to commit to the dynamic vision of the future.”
One core mission of the SAR64 billion megaproject: restore the At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage Site, an iconic mud-brick city that dates to the 15th century. The team will surround the site with more than 20 cultural attractions, including museums and academies, over 100 places to dine and 19 hotels.
“We are going the extra mile to ensure we provide the best location for ambitious brands, collaborating to create exceptional customer experiences,” says Jonathan Timms, president of Diriyah Development Company (DevCo). “This one-of-a-kind project will present over 400 of the finest retail brands from across the kingdom and around the world in an authentic and intimate environment, while we protect and celebrate the distinctive character of Diriyah.”
It’s a wildly audacious project but DGDA and its subsidiary, DevCo, already cracked one major logistics conundrum last year: threading the project’s critical infrastructure through an existing urban community. DevCo worked with industrial and engineering company Nesma & Partners to set road control measures for the site, building out a network of tunnels, ramps and a major bridge deck to provide easy traffic access between Diriyah Gate zones and the capital’s motorway system. There was just the small matter of excavating 8 million cubic meters (283 million cubic feet) of rock and incorporating 60,000 metric tons of steel reinforcement.
To maintain local support during construction, project leaders hosted public briefings so community members felt they were in the loop. The payoff for all that planning: The eight-lane highway was completed in just 63 days—without a single road closure required.
The next milestone calls for completing a state-of-the-art three-level underground parking garage designed to accommodate 10,500 cars.
The ultimate goal is to attract more than 25 million visitors annually, which would help the kingdom achieve a critical element of its Vision 2030 initiative—attracting 100 million visitors to Saudi Arabia by 2030. But when the commercial core of the project—Diriyah Square—opens in 2024, the project’s long-term impact will go well beyond tourism. Government leaders see the gigaproject as a way to “incubate an ecosystem of inspiration and empowerment,” with improved employment and standard of living for residents. The destination is expected to add around SAR27 billion to the country’s GDP and create 55,000 jobs, with a focus on upskilling women.
DGDA also recently unveiled plans to collaborate with the Ministry of Culture to create a new school called Diriyah Art Futures. Project leaders envision a platform for scientists, intellectuals, producers and investors to turn innovative ideas into digital works of art. The school will also open doors for next-gen digital creators through hackathons and educational coursework on topics like AI and machine learning. In addition, the site will house a museum, library and art gallery.