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‘The Capital of Arab Culture’: Inside the $63.2bn revival of Diriyah

Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO of Diriyah Company
Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO of Diriyah Company

This article is a preview of a longer interview that will appear on the Inside Saudi website, www.insidesaudi.media.  

Diriyah, “The City Of Earth,” is the ancestral home of the House of Al Saud and the founding place of the First Saudi State in 1727. Situated at the heart of Diriyah is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif. Diriyah is undergoing a major revival that will see 14 sq km of development in the coming years to transform it into a world-leading gathering centre.

To kick off our dedicated five-part series, Sir Martyn Lewis for Inside Saudi interviewed Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO of Diriyah Company. A 50-year veteran of the hospitality industry, Inzerillo has led and launched prominent brands and destinations globally, including Forbes Travel, Sun City in South Africa, and Atlantis in the Bahamas. He joined DGDA in 2018.

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ML – How does Diriyah fit into the Vision 2030 masterplan?

JI – Diriyah is very, very important. The Arab League has declared us the Capital of Arab Culture for 2030, and we are very proud of that.

We are building a cultural heritage and quality of life-focused and environmentally friendly city for 100,000 people to live and work, and 50 million visits annually, in the Riyadh metropolis. In December 2022, we opened At-Turaif, our World Heritage Site and have already welcomed 2m visitors.

Riyadh is being reconfigured as a leading sustainable city for 15 million people. It will have all the amenities and infrastructure to allow 150 million visitors to the Kingdom annually.

ML – What will Diriyah look and feel like? What will attract visitors and residents, and will the two live side by side? 

JI – Diriyah is going to look like it did 300 years ago. Diriyah will be built in the Najdi-inspired architectural style typified by the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Crown Prince’s vision was never to make Diriyah kinetic like a Cairo or even a Rome. It was always meant to be a jewel: a Florence, a Marrakesh, a Fez, a Siena, where you are not dodging cars on the surface.

When people visit, we will extend gracious Saudi hospitality. Visitors will coincide with residents, enjoy each other, and learn of a very rich culture, but we will never over-run Diriyah to where it has the feeling of a theme park.

Diriyah is intended to be walkable. We will be pedestrianized, and void of traffic as much as possible, where people can walk to work or to pray, or to the 40-plus hotels, hundreds of restaurants and retail outlets. We are putting in infrastructure for 40,000 cars below ground and so you don’t have fumes in the atmosphere.

Where there’s no surface parking, you can have bigger parks. We are planting 6 million trees, bushes, and shrubs. You see families outside, people jogging and running and having a great time. We already have people picnicking, riding bikes, and riding scooters. It’s great to offer people a recreational space, and it is beautiful to see people enjoy it.

ML – What investment and commercial opportunities are on offer today at Diriyah? How can potential partners get involved?

JI – Everything to do with tourism. We see a lot of prosperity in the real estate sector, in restaurants, in retail, in hotels, in residential.

Diriyah is trading profitably, and we’ve opened assets every year since 2021. In 2022, we not only reopened our World Heritage Site but also opened Bujairi Terrace, which has 20 restaurants. Our first residential units have been selling really well.

It’s easy to get to any of the CEOs of the giga-projects. We’re all super available. Moreover, we have a thriving Ministry of Investment, whose principal purpose along with the Ministry of Commerce is to attract foreign investment.

ML – Even to someone as experienced as you, does Diriyah not present a phenomenal and complex challenge? How have you approached it – for example, how does the “One Diriyah” culture you have introduced to DGDA work?

JI – When I read Vision 2030, I was very excited. Tourism was to play a very particular role in it, and that’s my whole life’s work. I thought: “If I can get in on that one at this stage of the innings, that would be a real honour.”

We have unbelievably talented young people, to whom we have added some of the best and brightest from all over the world to help us on our mission.

What I started early on was to put a number one up. It was symbolic. There is only one Diriyah in that it is authentic, the birthplace of the Kingdom, the custodian of heritage. So we became a culture of one.

It means we cannot succeed in our goals unless every individual passionately believes in those goals.

It means we’re one family. Right now, we have over 2,000 people, of which 80-plus percent are Saudi, 36 percent are Saudi women, and 14 percent are from Diriyah. In our victories, there’s no one person taking credit. We’re going to make mistakes. We’ll learn not to duplicate them. We back each other up.

I think One Diriyah is a cornerstone of why we have been consistently placed highly among places to work in the Kingdom and Asia.

Diriyah recently received Platinum LEED Certification in terms of environmental protection and sustainability. This bodes well for Diriyah and tourism in the Kingdom, and we are all very, very optimistic about the future.