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Diriyah Gate: The kingdom’s cultural heart

The project's scope has expanded from its inception, adding a further $30 billion to the originally estimated $20 billion cost
The project's scope has expanded from its inception, adding a further $30 billion to the originally estimated $20 billion cost

Roughly 20 minutes’ drive north-west of Riyadh’s city centre lies the historic town of Diriyah.

The original home of the House of Saud and the capital of the First Saudi State, it is here that the country’s new cultural capital is beginning to take shape.

Overseeing its transformation is the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA), which has been tasked with bringing the vision of a global tourism destination to life. 

Being developed at an estimated cost of $50 billion, Diriyah Gate is a mixed-use historic, cultural and lifestyle project featuring everything from museums and galleries to retail and dining experiences, public squares, hotels and residences.

It also includes the preservation and restoration of At-Turaif, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the upgrading of both the Wadi Hanifah and Bujairi districts.

Covering seven square kilometres, it is projected to have a population of 100,000 when complete and will be home to both King Salman Square and King Salman University.

As is the case with other developments across Saudi Arabia, the nature and scale of the project has evolved over time, with the estimated cost originally set at $20 billion. The number of hotels and museums has also increased, while Diriyah Gate’s projected impact on the country’s tourism industry is ambitious.

It has a target of 27 million local and international visitors by 2030 and is therefore key to the kingdom’s national tourism strategy. Amongst the 38 planned hotels and resorts will be a signature Armani Hotel managed by the Emaar Hospitality Group, which was announced by the DGDA and Armani Hotels & Resorts in March.

It will join the likes of the Four Seasons Hotel Diriyah and The Ritz-Carlton, Diriyah, the latter of which is slated to open in 2025.

At-Turaif, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will benefit from the project

Last April, the DGDA established the Diriyah Development Company to oversee all construction activity, with the first phase of the masterplan revolving around Wadi Hanifah and Bujairi Terrace, a collection of 18 restaurants scheduled for completion in early 2022.

Infrastructure and landscape works commenced at Wadi Hanifah last October and in November the DGDA unveiled its vision for Diriyah Square, the project’s commercial heart. Scheduled to open in 2024, it will host over 450 retail brands and 100 artisan souks, as well as leisure and entertainment facilities, hotels, residences and work spaces.

DGDA awarded the $1.06 billion contract to construct the square’s super-basement works to Salini Saudi Arabia in January. The project’s largest contract to date, it includes a three-level underground car park for 10,500 vehicles and a total built up area of almost one million square metres.

This was followed in February by Nesma & Partners winning the contract to build the principal Diriyah Interchange on Riyadh’s Western Ring Road. Valued at $311 million, the contract includes the construction of a network of tunnels, ramps and a major bridge deck. The tunnels will form part of a 2.1 kilometre revolving road system underneath Diriyah Square. 

As with other large-scale projects in the kingdom, residents of neighbourhoods within the vicinity of Diriyah face the loss of their homes.

In December, the DGDA began a process of expropriation in the Alfaisaliyah district north of Diriyah, requesting that the owners of property within the area submit proof of ownership.

This followed earlier announcements of expropriation in Khozama, Nakheel and Irqah. All owners have been promised compensation.