The Public Investment Fund (PIF) is Saudi Arabia’s powerful sovereign wealth fund. It is among the largest in the world – with assets reportedly worth over US$600 billion – which makes it a formidable fund with vast resources. At the start of this year, the PIF formally designated Diriyah, The City of Earth as a “giga project”. There are only five PIF-backed giga projects in the kingdom: Neom, Qiddiya, Roshn, Red Sea and Diriyah.

Being designated with the prefix “giga” allows each of these entities to have access to billions of dollars to fund their projects. “As a PIF portfolio project, we are supported by one of the world’s fastest-growing sovereign wealth funds and have an incredible US$63.2 billion investment pipeline that will deliver the Middle East’s premier cultural, lifestyle and hospitality destination. Diriyah is a key pillar of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy,” says Jerry Inzerillo, group CEO of Diriyah.

Diriyah is a mega mixed-use development, spread over 14 sq km, and built on the outskirts of Riyadh adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif that was home to the royal family that ruled the First Saudi State.

Giga projects such as Diriyah are crucial to the kingdom’s plans to diversify its economy away from oil – the fact notwithstanding that state-owned Saudi Aramco, recently reported a record profit of US$161 billion which is the highest-ever annual profit recorded by any oil and gas company. Although Saudi Arabia’s oil economy is thriving, it is now determined to diversify and open itself up to the world – especially tourists and visitors.

Since opening to global tourism back in 2019, Saudi has been recognised as among the world’s fastest-growing tourism destinations among G20 countries. Last year, it already witnessed an over 121 per cent increase from pre-pandemic international tourism levels, achieving 93.5 million visits in 2022. Last year, tourism spend in the kingdom was estimated at SAR185 billion – an increase of 93 per cent compared to 2021. Saudi has also committed US$550 billion to new destinations by 2030 – and Diriyah is now among the most high-profile undertakings in the kingdom. “Vision 2030 is turbo-charging the growth and diversification of the economy in Saudi Arabia. Each project contributes uniquely to this strategy, and each represents an opportunity to be a shining example of the kingdom’s ambitious development plans. All those involved in leading the realisation of these projects understand that as individuals they are indeed part of a much larger transformation,” observes Inzerillo.

Diriyah benefits from the fact that it is located only 15 minutes away from the centre of Riyadh. Riyadh is a city with an ambitious development plan. Earlier this year, the PIF announced the master plan for a new six-runway King Salman International Airport that can potentially accommodate up to 120 million travellers by 2030. Also this year, the PIF launched the New Murabba Development Company which is tasked with building what is being positioned as “the world’s largest modern downtown in Riyadh.” Diriyah is in a unique position to capitalise on the hyper development of Saudi’s capital city.

“Riyadh is already a thriving metropolis of over eight million people, and that will grow to 15 million by 2030. Sixty per cent of the city’s population is aged 35 or below, and the Saudi to expat ratio is very different to other cities in the region, sitting at around 60:40. It is the 41st largest city economy in the world and Vision 2030 will propel it to the top 10 within the next seven years.

“For our part, Diriyah’s investment pipeline will provide Riyadh residents with a world-class cultural destination that tells the story of the birth of the nation and offers them an immersive historical journey, on their doorstep,” says Inzerillo. Diriyah is expected to add US$7.2 billion to Saudi’s GDP annually by 2030.

How Jerry Inzerillo is transforming Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry with the Diriyah project

Everyone’s welcome
Diriyah opened the first phase of its development to the public towards the end of last year. In December, it began to welcome guests to its At Turaif World Heritage Site which was painstakingly restored. There are a number of programmes taking place there such as Nuzul, which are immersive theatrical performances conducted on-site that illustrate the history and heritage of the location. There are also Arabic calligraphy demonstrations, arts and crafts sessions for visiting families, mud-brick-making workshops (Diriyah is being built with the Najdi style of architecture, for which over 180 million bricks have already been made), and even a special Arabian Horse Gallery that traces the history of one of the world’s finest breed of horses. Furthermore, the At-Turiaf complex also features a military gallery and a museum with artefacts from and explanations of the First Saudi State.

Apart from At-Turaif, Diriyah also opened the 15,000 sqm luxury dining destination of Bujairi Terrace overlooking At-Turaif. “In December 2022, Bujairi Terrace launched. From its four Michelin-starred restaurants to the Saudi brands offering incredible local cultural tastes including Maiz, which offers an illustrious journey across the delights of Arabia, to international brands such as Angelina and Sarabeth’s, it houses one of the most expansive and varied curated culinary offerings in the world,” says Inzerillo.

Bujairi Terrace follows the Najdi architectural style. (Image: Supplied by Diriyah)
Bujairi Terrace follows the Najdi architectural style. (Image: Supplied by Diriyah)

There are more than 20 restaurants that have opened initially in Bujairi Terrace. The four restaurants whose international outposts have Michelin Stars and can now be found in Diriyah are Chez Bruno, Hakkasan, Long Chim and Tatel. Saudi homegrown brands, apart from Maiz, include Takya, Altopiano, Somewhere/Somewhere Dessert Bar, Sum + Things and Hi. International brands that have opened in Bujairi Terrace include names such as Cova, Flamingo Room, and Villa Mamas, among others. Café de L’Esplanade in Diriyah meanwhile is only the second outpost of the restaurant in the world outside of its home in Paris.

Alongside restaurants, a total of 38 hotels will be built in Diriyah and each will feature the Najdi style of mud-brick architecture. The first of these is expected to open this year itself. Of the overall count, the brand names of 32 hotels have been announced, with the latest set of 16 hotels unveiled in December. The 16 hotel brands that were announced in December will be situated across two areas – Diriyah and the adjacent verdant Wadi Safar. In Diriyah, Thai brand Anantara, Corinthia Hotels, Marriott International’s Edition Hotels, Taj Hotels, The Langham, Waldorf Astoria, 1 Hotels, Pendry Hotels and Resorts, Treehouse Hotel, Hyatt Place, Marriott International’s Moxy Hotels and Radisson Hotel Group’s Radisson RED will open. In Wadi Safar, Faena Hotel, Montage Hotels and Resorts, The Chedi by GHM Hotels and Well Health Retreat are scheduled to open over the next few years.

Previously announced hotel brands that will have a presence in Diriyah include Address Hotels and Resorts, Baccarat Hotels and Resorts, Armani Hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Luxury Collection, Raffles, Orient Express, Rosewood and Four Seasons. “Hospitality is fundamental to Diriyah’s role as a gathering place and as a hub for cultural and societal collaboration. The 38 global brands blend world-renowned hotels with an interpretation of the local landscape and Najdi design themes, offering visitors an immersive experience,” says Inzerillo.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif. (Image: Supplied by Diriyah)
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif. (Image: Supplied by Diriyah)

As far as infrastructure is concerned, the scale of Diriyah is enormous. Overground, it will be a pedestrian-only area and all of the development’s supporting infrastructure including its metro lines, roads, tunnels and parking bays are all built underground. An example of the scale of the infrastructure ambition is evident in the “Super Basement” car park which is currently under construction and is being built across three levels below Diriyah Square in the centre of the development. It will accommodate 10,000 cars. Eventually, Diriyah will have parking bays for 24,000 cars.

“To achieve this level of delivery in the context of a residential area like Diriyah, we have established a series of initiatives that minimise the impact on the local community, including park-and-ride strategies for workers, bridges, and traffic management plans. A great example of this is that in March 2022, we successfully lifted our first bridge over the infrastructure and transportation tunnel networks which connected the east and west of the Diriyah construction site. This was the third operational bridge to be built to support the logistical movement of over 1,600 vehicles, further controlling the impact to the surrounding areas,” says Inzerillo. Over four billion dollars have already been allocated to only infrastructure development as an army of approximately 15,000 construction workers dig through eight million cubic metres of rock and install hundreds of kilometres of water, sewerage, electric, and fibreoptic lines to support the development of Diriyah which is being built as a smart city.

Outward looking
While Saudi Arabia aims to receive 100 million annual visits by 2030, Inzerillo’s goal is to ensure that Diriyah receives 27 million annual visitors by that year. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is also the Prime Minister and chairman of PIF, has direct oversight of the Diriyah project. “I have had the pleasure to serve and contribute with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for some years now. A lot of people say to me, ‘At this point in your career, what are you doing working all hours of the day and night in Saudi Arabia?’ Well, my answer is always the same – I have never seen someone work as hard or be as dedicated to their goals as His Royal Highness, and when your boss, the chairman of the board and Crown Prince is working 80 hours a week, you need to work 81 hours.

“When you are working to develop a city that formed the foundation for the First Saudi State and is the ancestral home of the House of Al Saud, only the best will do. The Crown Prince said to me as soon as I started: ‘Go and get the finest minds in the world. Culture, heritage, design, architecture. Get the best.’ So, we did, and we really have brought together the very best from the kingdom and across the world,” notes Inzerillo.

He says that by the end of this decade, Diriyah aims to have created a staggering 55,000 permanent jobs – prioritising local and national talent, especially in management roles. Of the current employee base, 36 per cent are women (16 per cent of whom are in management roles) and also 14 per cent of its current staff are from Diriyah itself.

Mud-brick-making workshops at At-Turaif. (Image: Supplied by Diriyah)
Mud-brick-making workshops at At-Turaif. (Image: Supplied by Diriyah)

As Diriyah prepares to open its first hotels this year, plans have already been revealed for art, tech and media districts as well as retail assets and even an opera house. Diriyah has also begun hosting high-profile events in order to increase visibility among a global audience. In January, the Diriyah E-Prix, part of the ninth season of ABB FIA Formula E Championship, took place with music concerts over the race weekend headlined by the likes of John Legend and French Montana.

Also, the Diriyah Biennale Foundation was founded by Saudi’s Ministry of Culture in 2020 with the inaugural season held the following year. “Diriyah became a place of artistic expression and cultural exchange in the 18th century and as we develop the giga project today, we are already seeing Diriyah reclaim that position held during its past. To name but a few of the incredible events that have showcased Diriyah’s cultural offering; Saudi Arabia’s first Contemporary Art Biennale was held in Diriyah’s Jax district featuring works from over 60 international and 27 Saudi artists. The Jax district also hosted the Saudi Design Festival, a three-week event showcasing the talent of local Saudi designers through deep-dive discussions and design thinking workshops. Diriyah was also chosen in 2021 by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) as the Capital of Arab Culture, demonstrating the cultural height Diriyah has already reached in the Arab world,” says Inzerillo. For this year’s edition of the biennale which began in January and will conclude this month, the Diriyah Biennale Foundation decided to step outside of Riyadh and debut its inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, a city that serves as a gateway to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

Ultimately, Inzerillo and his team are using At-Turaif – the ancestral home of the House of Saud that rules the kingdom to this day – as the template with which Diriyah and its assets including Bujairi Terrace, its hotels and lifestyle and leisure assets are being built. It is what is guiding everything from the design inspiration to the Najdi architectural style and the nature of the businesses too that will have a presence in Diriyah. “The efforts of the House of Saud have made Diriyah a renowned gathering place at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. A city built from the earth, Diriyah will continue to proudly showcase Saudi Arabia’s three centuries of history to the world through an engaging and awe-inspiring set of heritage, cultural, education, retail and dining experiences for residents and visitors alike. We will continue to see deliveries of assets [over the coming years]. As Vision 2030 transforms it into a cultural destination with world-class hospitality, lifestyle, dining, and natural offerings, it is being restored to its former eminence.” If a country’s wealth fund is indicative of its economic standing among its worldwide contemporaries, it is the diversity and breadth of its cultural assets that in turn signal its ascension to the world stage as a soft power.