Welcome To Diriyah: A Journey Into The Heart Of Saudi Arabia’s Heritage, And The Future Of Its Tourism

The recent announcement of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city, being named as the host city for Expo 2030—the five-yearly event—will mean millions more visitor arrivals. It also makes the creation of the luxury tourism destination Diriyah, located just 15 minutes out of Riyadh, an incredibly well-timed effort.

Just last year, Diriyah was added to the Public Investment Fund (PIF) portfolio of as one of five giga-projects by PIF’s Chairman, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Diriyah’s remit is a grand one: to become one of the world’s greatest gathering places. This 14-square-kilometre development and city is part of a US$63.2 billion development and is poised to become a modern global city for culture, education and entertainment, with a projected 18,000 luxury residences, more than 40 international luxury hotels, nine museums, 1.6 million square metres of commercial offices, 566 square metres of lifestyle retail and F&B precincts, four metro stations connecting into Riyadh and, beyond that, what will be the world’s largest airport terminal when built.

Cosmopolitan communities

To understand why Diriyah came to be is to delve into the formation of Saudi Arabia as a country. In 1727, the first Saudi state was established by Imam Mohammed bin Saud who headed the united Najdi communities that had settled on the wadi (or oasis), with Diriyah as its capital. Rising from the oasis was At-Turaif, the seat of the ruling royal family. Successive dynasties would then flourish and end before the third dynasty of the house of Saud declared unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, with King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman. Subsequently, the historic Diriyah underwent restoration, first in 1973, and later on with the At-Turaif historic district recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

Much more recently, the establishment of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority in 2017 and the 2019 launch of the project has borne fruit, with the 2022 At-Turaif as well as the Bujairi Terrace openings. The latter is a dining destination currently comprising four restaurants with Michelin-starred heritage, where international names from Long Chim, Hakkasan, Angelina, Tatel and the Flamingo Room mingle with swish middle-eastern dining establishments. Buzzy and a hive of activity most nights, Bujairi Terrace exemplifies the realisation of the grandiose plans behind Diriyah, a place where domestic and international travellers converge in a setting that is uniquely respectful of the Najdi architectural cues and, at the same time, carries the cosmopolitan frisson of an international city.

Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO of the Diriyah Company (DGDA), is a seasoned veteran of the hospitality scene. For him, the announcement of Saudi Arabia as host of Expo 2030 is a great testament to how Riyadh is becoming a city of the future, with Diriyah embodying the kingdom’s rich history. “We are aiming to receive 50 million annual visits, create more than 178,000 direct jobs and contribute USD18.6 billion to national GDP by 2030,” he says. That amount would push tourism’s contribution to the GDP from a current three per cent to 10 per cent, a yardstick of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 in reforming its long-term economic success and transforming the lives of its citizens.

“All of our development is in concentric circles around the priceless jewel that is At-Turaif,” Inzerillo says. “And we can never forget that 30,000 people lived here 300 years ago on this oasis of Wadi Hanifah.” On this fertile strip, nine kilometres have been upgraded with parks composed of six million indigenous shrubs, bushes, trees and ponds. And in December 2024, a 1.9-kilometre boulevard, similar in length and width to that of Paris’ Champs-Élysées, will be established.

To 2030 and beyond

At the newly completed Wadi Safar experience centre, Inzerillo was joined by polo icon Nacho Figueras and golfing great as well as CEO of LIV Golf Investments Greg Norman.  The latter is putting his design stamp on the 27-hole Royal Diriyah Golf Club, of which the first nine holes have already been completed. For Figueras, his presence included a friendly game with players from the Saudi Polo Federation on the grounds of what will be the Royal Diriyah Equestrian and Polo Club. In total, the club is expected to stable 180 horses and be home to two polo fields, a VIP lounge, pro shop and restaurant. “I’m proud to be here with my son, and to see the incredible country. It’s a special place for us to be playing polo,” Figueras said before the match.

More photos of hotels in Diriyah

Among the key ground-breaking announcements made during the event were six hotels, namely, The Oberoi, Six Senses, Capella Diriyah, Four Seasons Hotel Diriyah, Address Diriyah, and The Ritz-Carlton Diriyah. The following day, guests were also hosted for cocktails and a tour of the Bab Samhan Hotel Diriyah, part of The Luxury Collection of Marriott International. Bab Samhan is the first of more than 41 international luxury hotels planting a flag in Diriyah. Other hospitality players such as Aman Resorts have also announced plans for both guest rooms as well as 34 branded residences. Also shown or announced during the evening were Rosewood, Park Hyatt, Baccarat, Raffles, LXR, Corinthia, Fauchon L’Hotel, Orient Express, and Armani.

Royal Diriyah Opera House.

The next night, under the stars and with a cooling desert wind blowing in, guests were treated to a sumptuous dinner by celebrity chef Michael Mina, Cairo-born and Washington-raised. During enjoyment of Mina’s spiny lobster salad with mango-saffron sauce and harissa-marinated lamb chops, guests were regaled by news of the impending Royal Diriyah Opera House, the kingdom’s first-ever. Spanning 45,000 square metres, the opera house, designed by world-renowned architectural firm Snøhetta, represents the cornerstone of the Diriyah masterplan’s second phase, with time allowing for more and more assets to be unveiled year-on-year until the world expo of 2030.

Inside the Royal Diriyah Opera House.


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