Most Influential Projects 2022

18 Diriyah Gate

Urban Development | Middle East & North Africa
Diriyah Gate

For blending the past and future to create a one-of-a-kind tourist destination—and community

Just another glitzy mixed-use development project, this is not. Located on the outskirts of Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh, the SAR64 billion Diriyah Gate aims to create an innovative microcosm of the kingdom itself—blending 300 years of culture and heritage with high-end retail, residential living and education experiences for a destination that’s distinctly Saudi. 

“Diriyah is a significant celebration of Saudi Arabia’s history and culture,” says Mohamed Saad, acting president of Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA). “It represents the birthplace of our country, encompassing the heritage and traditions that strengthen our identity.”

Combining traditional Najdi architectural typology—rooftop terraces, decorated doors, large courtyards—and new urbanism, the site is meant to showcase the destination’s past, present and future. The ambitious initiative also reinforces the country’s Vision 2030 strategy to grow and diversify the economy, in part through greater commerce and tourism. Expected to attract 30 million visitors annually, Diriyah Gate could pour an estimated SAR27 billion into the kingdom’s economy. 

One major mission of the project: restore At-Turaif, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to 1766 and served as the capital of the first Saudi state. The majestic complex of mud-brick palaces was also the ancestral home of the Al Saud family. Project plans call for new construction to surround the existing complex, placing it at the heart of the new development.

“We want to forge an emotional connection with our guests by faithfully rediscovering life in Diriyah as it was 300 years ago,” Saad says. “Visitors can experience guided pathways that authentically recreate life as it was centuries ago.”

At the same time, a bounty of museums, immersive cultural attractions, and restaurants and shops entice visitors to extend their trip (and open their wallets). “We want to develop a modern, world-class lifestyle destination,” Saad says.

And with that comes a deep focus on sustainability. DGDA built the development pedestrian-oriented to keep Diriyah a city rooted in the past, while also reducing the overall fuel emissions and carbon footprint of the development. In June, the first phase of DGDA’s master plan secured platinum LEED accreditation in recognition of the team’s efforts to incorporate sustainability into its planning, design, construction and operations. One example? The team used locally sourced materials, including traditionally made mud bricks and limestone from within Saudi Arabia.

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.

That focus on the community is a critical component as DGDA looks to extend the project’s long-term impact well beyond tourism. Government leaders see the so-called gigaproject as a way to “incubate an ecosystem of inspiration and empowerment,” promising improved employment and standard of living for its residents. The destination is expected to create 55,000 jobs, with a focus on upskilling women.

DGDA has also collaborated 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, designed by Studio Schiattarella e Associati, 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.

With the core commercial center not scheduled to open until 2024, Diriyah Gate still has many milestones to meet. But Saad envisions a massive ROI. “As one of the first gigaprojects in the kingdom to open its doors to visitors, Diriyah will soon become an iconic global point of reference,” he says. “It will pave the way for the kingdom to lead a world that roots itself in the past as it moves toward the future.”