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The City of Earth

A year after the ancient site of Diriyah was announced as a Giga project in Saudi Arabia, our Editor-in-Chief, Julia Pasarón, speaks to Group CEO, Jerry Inzerillo, about the significance of this unparalleled project for the future of the Kingdom.

The birthplace of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the ancestral home to the Al Saud family, Diriyah is a place of history and heritage to Saudis, fundamental to their cultural identity and national pride.

Initially an oasis settlement on a fertile bank of the Wadi Hanifa, Diriyah was a crossroads of culture and trade. In the 18th century, it became the capital of the First Saudi State. Today, Diriyah stands at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s plans for its future as a unique cultural capital, with the UNESCO World Heritage site, At-Turaif, at its core.

Referred to as The City of Earth, today Diriyah reacquaints Saudis with the lives and achievements of their ancestors and the living traditions, stories and history they share. It is here that Saudi Arabia introduces visitors to traditional Najdi culture and hospitality. Thanks to decades of investment in restoration and modernisation by the Saudi government, Diriyah is becoming a global destination for art and culture lovers from all corners of the world.

Salwa Palace, the original home of the Al-Saud royal family. It was built by imam Abdullaziz bin Saud in 1765 AD, with an area of 960 sqm in the north of Diriyah. The palace owes its name to the comfort and conviviality (salwa) that its facilities brought to its residents and guests.

Among the structures that are still standing or have been lovingly restored, we find the Salwa Palace, residence of the Saudi Amirs and  Imams during the First Saudi State. Today, it is home to a museum that showcases handwritten manuscripts, ancient artefacts, and the royal family tree. Hamam At-Turaif (Bathhouse) is famous for its different architectural styles and the unique dome covering the bathhouse. The Al-Bujari district was the religious centre of the historical settlement. Its mosque became a centre for religious education with students coming from all over the Arabian Peninsula.

In 2017, HRH The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia created the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) and appointed Gerard “Jerry” Inzerillo as Group Chief Executive Officer in June 2018. With five decades of experience, Inzerillo is considered a visionary of the hospitality and tourism industry, recipient of multiple awards, including the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO), for his unique contributions to world peace by bringing people together through travel and tourism.

“Diriyah is about preserving a way of life, ensuring that its cultural and natural heritage is protected for generations to come.”

– Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO

At the helm of the Diriyah project for nearly six years, Inzerillo has a deep understanding of its meaning and importance. He explains why they have chosen to call it The City of Earth: “The roots of the modern Saudi society can be traced back to ancestral Diriyah,” he explains. “The term emphasizes its significance as a cultural and historical hub, reflecting a deep-rooted heritage that is closely tied to the earth itself.”

The overall intention is not just about preserving the past, or even introducing conservation and sustainability initiatives to save energy and water. “Diriyah is being crafted with an eye on the future, ensuring that as we move forward, we don’t lose sight of where we’ve come from. It’s a balance of preservation and innovation, a testament to the belief that the best way to honour our past is to ensure it has a place in our future,” Inzerillo states.

Entrance to Bujairi Terrace, inaugurated in December 2022.

In January 2023, Diriyah was formally announced as a giga project under the Public Investment Fund. The USD $63.2 billion project aims to develop 14-square km area, encompassing world-class cultural, entertainment, retail, hospitality, educational, religious, office and residential assets, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif as its anchor.

In his role, Inzerillo is tasked with developing and implementing the master plan both at a local and international level. “In my career, I’ve learned the importance of respecting and understanding the local culture and engaging with local communities,” he shares. “My experience has taught me the value of building strong teams and fostering strategic, long-term partnerships – skills that were foundational in approaching the Diriyah project. There is also the focus on excellence in service, creating memorable, immersive, cultural experiences, and the operational aspects of developing world-class destinations.”

Aerial view of Bujairi Terrace, Diriyah’s newest dining destination, offering cuisine from all over the world.

So far, Inzerillo and his team have plenty to be proud of. At-Turaif was inaugurated by His Majesty The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in November 2019, followed by hosting the G20 in November 2020 – a first for a Middle Eastern country. Together with Bujairi Terrace, it opened to the public in December 2022 and within six months, they had attracted over a million visitors (the forecast for 2030 is 50 million). Last year, they inaugurated Diriyah Art Futures, the Kingdom’s first dedicated centre for digital arts, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, and announced their collaboration with world-renowned architect Snøhetta for the Royal Diriyah Opera House. “These institutions are set to enhance the cultural landscape of Diriyah, offering rich educational experiences and insights into the Kingdom’s artistic heritage,” Inzerillo comments.

Sustainability is integral to every facet of Diriyah’s endeavours. A prime example of their dedication to preserving the natural landscape and the traditional lifestyle of the area was the decision to construct the first phase of the Diriyah Masterplan entirely in the traditional Najdi architectural style. “By using local materials like mud, stone, and Athel wood, inspired by the techniques used in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif, we ensure the project not only respects but also reflects the area’s rich heritage and environmental integrity.”

Diriyah Art Futures, an arts, research and educational centre driven by a belief in the power of interdisciplinary creative practice at the intersection of art, science, and technology.

Diriyah’s transformation will see it becoming not only a destination for art and history lovers, but also a hub for advanced studies, academic research, and vocational training, aligning with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. “This initiative is a restoration endeavour rooted in Saudi Arabia’s national strategy to diversify its economy and elevate its global competitiveness,” Inzerillo explains. “The giga-project stands at the forefront of promoting cultural tourism and spearheading the development of real estate and hospitality sectors in the region.”

Together with the other 13 giga projects in the Kingdom, which include AlUla and Neom, Inzerillo concludes that Diriyah is set to play a critical role in inviting the world to discover the multifaceted beauty and innovation that defines Saudi Arabia. “Diriyah, as the birthplace of the Kingdom, tells the story of our roots and traditions,” says Inzerillo, “offering a deep dive into our history and the foundation of our cultural identity. AlUla, with its breath-taking natural landscapes and ancient archaeological sites, invites exploration and contemplation of humanity’s shared heritage. Neom represents the future, embodying our aspirations for innovation, logistics, and technology-driven living.”

To learn more about the City of Earth, visit: www.diriyah.sa

All photos of Diriyah kindly provided by Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) unless otherwise stated.

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