Saudi Arabia's “Diriyah is the jewel of the kingdom”

DGDA speaks to CW on re-imagining authentic Najdi-style living, coupled with world-class amenities

Diriyah Gate's Escarpment Walk
Diriyah Gate's Escarpment Walk

Inspired by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince HRH Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Diriyah Gate is among the kingdom’s long list of highly anticipated gigaprojects taking shape along the north west of the country’s capital Riyadh.

Celebrating Saudi Arabia’s rich history, the 7km2 site is set to be the world’s largest cultural and heritage development incorporating Najdi-inspired architecture that overlooks the UNESCO World Heritage site At-Turaif.

Described as the “jewel of the kingdom”, Diriyah Gate recently announced that major works had started on the “must-visit” site.

Speaking exclusively to Construction Week, Diriyah Gate Development Authority’s (DGDA) chief design & development officer, Jonathan Timms, said the masterplan aims to recreate how Saudis lived hundreds of years ago, while incorporating some of the modern amenities of today.

“Diriyah Gate is a unique development because it’s right around what is really the jewel of the kingdom in terms of our UNESCO world heritage site,” says Timms. “We’re developing an integrated cultural and heritage masterplan, which celebrates the region’s rich past with a range of individual experiences from cultural, entertainment, retail, hospitality, education, as well as offering residential areas.”

The project aims to restore the 15th century city of Diriyah that was established on the banks of Wadi Hanifah in 1446 AD and became the capital of the first Saudi state in 1744 AD.

Timms added that the gigaproject will provide a “new way of living for Diriyah’s residents” and is a type of development that currently “doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia”.

“It is the intersection of authentic Najdi-style living coupled with world-class amenities all within the convenience of a mixed-use urban community,” explains Timms. “It’s a unique opportunity where people can come and live or recreate in an authentic environment, but also have some amenities that you don’t get around Riyadh or other parts of Saudi Arabia.”

Diriyah Gate Development Authority recently announced that it had started major works on the development, which they said was a fast-track programme and aims to have the whole site completed by 2025.

Timms elaborated that this was an “ambitious undertaking” but remained confident that it would be finished on schedule.

“We’ve started in a range of areas: firstly our major infrastructure programme and there’s an enormous amount of excavation that has to be done,” explains Timms.

“Our main excavation is around nine million cubic metres of soil that we’re removing and building sub-surface infrastructure. We also have some assets that are being developed now in and around the Bujairi Precinct.”

The Bujairi Precinct will be the first of several areas of Diriyah to experience a major upgrade that will significantly beautify the area, improve infrastructure and enhance the quality of life for the community.

“The Bujairi Precinct is opposite and surrounding the world heritage site of At-Turaif. Firstly, in the northern part of the site around the Bujairi Precinct, we’re completing a major infrastructure upgrade. Where the formula e-racetrack is located, we are having to dig up the track and put the surfaces that will underpin all of these future developments,” says Timms.

Timms also revealed that towards the end of the year and before February next year, they will be working on the streetscape, which will be the “first glimpse” of the project and will be “new for Saudi Arabia”.

“The new streetscape will honour the history of Diriyah with fully indigenous landscaping, new signage and street furniture as well as natural shading for pedestrian walkways,” says Timms.

Other works underway in the Bujairi Precinct comprise the Diriyah Art Oasis – a centre designed to support and inspire the production of contemporary Saudi art and international emerging artists, and the 150-key Samhan Heritage Hotel - a heritage mud hotel property.

Construction is also progressing on the Bujairi Dining District.

“Bujairi Dining District will have 20 plus high-end through to middle market restaurants in a really unique environment overlooking At-Turaif,” says Timms. “You are going to get new market entrances, as well as Saudi cuisine in what we are certain will be the number one place to dine in the kingdom.”

Timms also confirmed that the restoration of the historic valley, Wadi Hanifah, has also begun.

Wadi Hanifah runs for 110km through one end to the other end of Riyadh, and Diriyah Gate has obtained 2km2 as part of their masterplan.

“We’re focusing on rejuvenating and restoring the Wadi palm groves, which were a big part of life going back hundreds of years ago and some of the earliest traces of humanity in this region,” explains Timms.

“We want to restore the palm groves and historical agriculture, as well as creating a range of passive and active recreational opportunities including bike tracks, horse bridle paths in addition to cultural experiences within the Wadi for both local people from Riyadh and guests visiting the site.”

While the majority of construction on Diriyah Gate is in full swing, Timms teased that there will be more announcements to come in one to two months’ time.

“We have got 80 plus assets across the whole masterplan that are all accelerating very quickly. There will be more to add to this list.”

Timms also expands on awarding 150 plus contracts in total throughout the design and construction of the development and discusses the appetite for local Saudi contractors across the kingdom’s construction sector.

“I think for the whole contracting market, we have to be mindful of capacity. Our largest contracts to date for both our infrastructure works have been for local Saudi contractors,” says Timms.

“We would love for the whole project to be built by local Saudi contractors, but as we study the market as some of our bigger packages come on-board, we’re going to have to understand who is in the market, and what their current capacity levels are.”

He adds: “There’s no doubt that there is a need for additional capacity whether it’s from new entrants or existing contractor expansions to cover the level of activity that is planned for the kingdom over the next few years.”

Hotels are also being regarded as a “big footprint” for the Diriyah Gate development as it aims to target 24 five star and above properties, as well as some being ultra-luxury.

“We are engaging with all of the top hotel brands and we have been overwhelmed with demand to be part of this project. Out of the 24 hotels, we’re trying to finalise 19 of those at the moment,” Timms says.

While 2020 has posed significant challenges for Saudi Arabia’s construction industry due to the impact of COVID-19, Timms paid tribute to the kingdom’s leadership in how they have “proactively” addressed the pandemic.

“They [Saudi leaders] have been very pragmatic in terms of ensuring the lockdowns, but they also offered us the flexibility to get on with the things that we needed to do in a safe way,” says Timms.

“As a team, we have looked into how we can progress our project while still being safe for our contractors, customers and our staff. We had very little impact from a delay perspective and from a budget perspective, I think it’s almost negligible.”

Upon completion, Timms concluded that he believes that the world’s largest cultural and heritage development will be the “heart and history” of the kingdom and will have significant meaning for all Saudis.

“We feel very honoured to be given this opportunity. It is a big responsibility for everyone involved in developing the history of Saudi Arabia.

“It does introduce some complexities as some of our construction techniques are looking to recreate how things were built historically, but I think in terms of driving the authenticity that visitors want to see when they visit, I think this stands us in good stead,” Timms grins.

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