Back in June, work commenced on the world’s largest cultural and heritage development project. The $20 billion Diriyah Gate project (7 square kilometers) will transform Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, a 300-plus year old city, into what the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) calls “one of the world’s foremost lifestyle destinations for culture and heritage, hospitality, retail and education.” The massive restoration project (which will preserve the At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage Site) is part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030—an ambitious goal to develop a vibrant, healthy, happy, future-oriented society of 100 million people by the start of next decade. For reference purposes, there are 38 million currently living in the Saudi Kingdom.
Vision 2030 incorporates “every stream of the Saudi ministry,” Jerry Inzerillo (CEO, Diriyah Gate Development Authority) said. Everything from agriculture to technology and defense. However, Inzerillo explained that the roadmap places an emphasis on sport. “The Crown Prince feels [sports improve] quality of life, [the] happiness of [the] people, [they] entertain and keep society physically fit.” Positioning the city as a global sports destination can also drive tourism, reduce the country’s dependence on petroleum, eliminate some geopolitical baggage and advance gender equality amongst the population. The Diriyah Gate project includes the construction of a 20,000-seat state-of-the-art arena and a pair of Greg Norman designed golf courses.
Our Take: For those not familiar with Saudi geography, Diriyah is located just 15 minutes outside the principal city of Riyadh. The historic city is considered the birthplace of the first Saudi state and is viewed as the “Jewel of the Kingdom.”
Vision 2030 is largely about growing the Saudi economy (hence the need to increase the population). Over the last couple of decades, a large portion of Saudi youth went abroad for college before building a life for themselves in the U.S., Canada, England, Spain or Australia. In an effort to repatriate those who left and keep the younger generation from leaving (note: 65-70% of the current Saudi population is between the age of 18-35), King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (commonly referred to as MBS) are working to return the Kingdom to where it was pre-1979–when it was as Inzerillo described “a very moderate kingdom.” Their vision has been well received. Inzerillo said those abroad are “so excited about the future they’re coming home by the tens and hundreds of thousands.”
Vision 2030 is largely about providing the Saudi population with a high quality of life. But the Diriyah Gate project—which includes world-class cultural, entertainment, retail and hospitality facilities—also supports the kingdom’s tourism ambitions. The DGDA has suggested the destination will attract 25 million visitors annually.
The construction of world-class sporting venues should also further the country’s tourism business. Having those types of facilities will enable Diriyah to draw high-profile sporting events—which draw tourists en masse. Last year’s Diriyah E-prix race had more than 100,000 people in attendance, and Joshua-Ruiz II drew fans from more than 70 countries. For what it’s worth, Inzerillo said the Saudi ministry of sport is currently engaged “in very serious final negotiations” to bring “dozens” of sporting events to the kingdom, including a “world heavyweight of [boxing match].”
In addition to motorsports, boxing and fight sports, Inzerillo suggested Saudi Arabia would host equestrian events, tennis matches, boat races and golf tournaments in the near future. The country has also been awarded the 2034 Pan-Asian Games. “And I think it’s just inevitable in some period of time, the kingdom will host the Olympics,” he added.
Speaking about tourism as it relates to the kingdom is a relatively new phenomenon. That’s because for nearly all of the last 90 years it hasn’t been open to tourists. That changed in September 2019, as King Salman began welcoming visitors from 49 countries (plus Hong Kong and Macau). While COVID forced the country to pause its emerging international tourism business, Inzerillo said the Saudis view the sector as a “very big part” of the sociological transformation it hopes to make over the next decade.
International tourism is important to the King and Crown Prince for two reasons. With tourists unable to visit the kingdom and/or interact with the Saudi people for nearly 40 years, outside perceptions of the country have largely been formed by stereotypes. Having people come experience the country first-hand can help to reshape the kingdom’s image in the world’s eyes.
Tourism can also help Saudi Arabia to reduce its emphasis on petroleum, said Simon Chadwick (professor and director of Eurasian Sport, Emlyon Business School). “This is a country that historically has been hugely dependent on oil and gas revenues,” Chadwick explained. “And as we now know, the world is very rapidly developing an aversion to carbon fuels. So, Saudi Arabia is going to become increasingly exposed [to a decline in usage and prices].” By boosting their international tourism business, the country can diversify revenue streams across the country.
It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia carries geo-political baggage. The Biden administration recently announced sanctions against the country for human rights abuses, and a U.S. intelligence report said MBS approved of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Investing in sports, hosting sporting events and establishing deals with overseas sports properties can help in addressing some of the negativity around their image and reputation,” Chadwick said.
Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing what Chadwick deemed a “health crisis” (on top of COVID-19). The country has “one of the highest diabetes rates [per capita] in the world,” he said. So, investments in sport can help a population that has in recent decades lived a sedentary lifestyle become more active.
Women can both work and drive in Saudi Arabia now. But century long norms and conventions still trouble the country. Chadwick suggested that government investments in women’s sport may help to drive “attitudinal change in the country.”
While $20 billion may sound like a large development project, relative to the $500 billion projects taking place in Qiddiya and Neon it is relatively small; of course, those cities are literally being built from the ground up. Upon completion, Qiddiya will be the Kingdom’s largest sports hub. The city will have an indoor arena (necessary for esports competition), a motorsports park (it will host an annual Formula 1 race beginning in 2024), the world’s largest sport university and sports-related theme parks. “Anything you might want in sport, you’re going to find in Qiddiya,” Chadwick said. “It’s going to be a self-contained sports city.”