Hospitality honcho Jerry Inzerillo is the man tasked with transforming Diriyah into a global tourism destination. He tells us more about the breathtakingly ambitious project

Words: Jonathan Whiley

In the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the sands are shifting quickly. Diriyah, The City of Earth”, the capital of the First Saudi State and home of the Al Saud family – is being restored into a leading cultural, heritage and lifestyle destination. A key part of Vision 2030 – an economic and social reform blueprint that looks to develop tourism as part of the country’s efforts to diversify its economy away from the oil and gas sector and open up Saudi Arabia to the world – it’s one of five “giga” projects across the country.

The man tasked with overseeing this $63.2 billion colossus – a 14 sq km city bigger than Manhattan – is group CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, Jerry Inzerillo, one of the world’s leading figures in hospitality and tourism. “The scale of this thing is gigantic,” he says. “It can be intimidating and at the very least overwhelming, but it’s not to me. A long career has allowed me the components to now play this big.”

Vision 2030 hopes to transform tourism from three per cent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP to 10 per cent  with a plan for Diriyah (a 15-minute drive from downtown Riyadh) to attract more than 27 million visitors annually.

“The mission is to make Diriyah one of the greatest gathering places in the world that will contribute to the softening of some hardened stereotypes about the kingdom,” says Jerry.

“Economically it will allow the kingdom to diversify off just energy, create jobs and become a great living place with a very high quality of life serving our community and incubating Saudi talent.”

In December last year, two key components in Diriyah were opened to the public: At-Turaif, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Al Saud family’s ancestral residence; and Bujairi Terrace, a premium dining precinct with 20 restaurants ranging from Michelin-star to regional Saudi fare.

Over the next few years, further pieces of a complex jigsaw will fall into place including 38 luxury hotel openings (brands from Six Senses to Aman), 17,500 residences, an Art district, and a tech and media district.

The scale of the site is mind-blowing; involving some 15,000 construction workers. “We have over four billion US dollars in infrastructure,” says Jerry. “All new smart city technology on water, sewerage, electric, fibreoptics. We drilled through eight million cubic metres of rock; it’s the scale of the pharaohs!”

Sustainability is a key part of the project; all of the quarried stone will be recycled and much of the city will be pedestrianised with the creation of 40,000 underground parking spots. “Filtration systems will clean all the air from the cars like an aeroplane would, so you don’t have the carbon monoxide up top.”

Jerry is equally bullish on the community, implementing a policy to use local companies wherever possible. “We have been very disciplined about it. We only source Diriyah businesses before we go to Riyadh businesses, we use Riyadh businesses only before we go to Saudi businesses, we use Saudi before we go to Gulf. This allows the community to come with us and we have massive training programmes and a community services division led by a wonderful woman from Diriyah.”

Of the 1,600 people at DGDA, 85 per cent are Saudi with 36 per cent women (16 per cent of whom are in management roles). “The thing I’m most proud about is that 14 per cent of my staff are from Diriyah.”

The recruitment of senior people in certain professions has been the biggest challenge for Jerry. The Saudis may be young, highly educated and motivated but in certain “new” disciplines – such as marketing, design, development and tourism – they don’t have a great deal of experience. “So you have to import the general management and to get those two entities to work together in a harmonious unit is not easy,” he says.

While the time pressure on the project is enormous – “the biggest curse word in the kingdom is called delay; His Royal Highness the Crown Prince does not tolerate falling behind” – Jerry says Saudi Arabia is now uniquely placed on the world stage. He says that when you look at what leads to success globally, three or four factors usually ensure a chance of success. Five – a rarity – is what he believes the country is operating with right now; citing its continuity of leadership, vision, work ethic, resources and highly motivated labour.

“Take any G20 country; do they have all five? No. Saudi right now has five of the five. It needs to improve its image and the other thing is that you are on enormous pressure for time delivery; what Singapore accomplished in 60 years, what our brothers and sisters in the Emirates did in 30, the Crown Prince wants to accomplish in 15.”

For Jerry, it’s clear. “I envision a new Singapore for 15 million people in Riyadh. But in the middle of this modern G20 metropolis, is this gorgeous mud-brick city, amber-lit at night jewel called Diriyah. Five years from now you are going to have  his walkable, sustainable, very hip, very beautiful mud-brick city in the middle of this modern G20 metropolis. Fabulous!”