In April 2018, Saudi Arabia opened its first cinema after a nearly four-decade ban. Soon after, construction began on Qiddiya, one of three Saudi mega-projects being built from scratch alongside Neom and the Red Sea resort – the pillars of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 that is redefining Saudi Arabia, moving it away from oil, isolation and ultra-religious conservatism.
Occupying a space almost three times as large as Disney Land Florida, Qiddiya will host Saudi’s first dedicated theme park (by Six Flags), water parks, motor sports, cultural events, and 11,000 vacation homes by 2030.
With two-thirds of Saudi citizens under 35 and little entertainment available locally, Qiddiya aims to satisfy the recreational, social and cultural needs of an increasingly frustrated youth population, among whom the crown price enjoys great support. Currently, many Saudis flock to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to seek fun, spending roughly $30bn on overseas entertainment each year, globally.
Located an hour’s drive from Saudi Arabia’s largest city, Qiddiya will target Riyadh’s 8 million residents and about 45 million potential visitors from the Arabian Gulf region. A spokesman says Qiddiya expects to attract 1.5 million visitors annually when the first phase opens in 2022, and 31 million by 2035, when the project is meant to be complete.
Qiddiya is seeking a broad range of financing from local and international sources, with bonds, direct investment and other tools to supplement the majority contribution from the main Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.
Local media have reported that the cost of Qiddiya’s infrastructure alone would reach up to $8bn, providing work to an estimated 55,000 people – directly and indirectly – by 2022.
“Today, we invite investors, creators and operators from around the world to explore what a one-of-a-kind project such as Qiddiya has to offer...We’re not just going [to] copy others... We’re going to innovate and stay ahead of the curve,” said Qiddiya’s CEO, Michael Reininger, at the opening ceremony in April 2018.
Vision 2030 seeks to increase spending within Saudi Arabia on culture and entertainment activities from about 3% of household income to 6%.
Asked about the failures of other mega-projects in the region, such as King Abdullah Economic City, Mr Reininger said Qiddiya stood apart by fulfilling a clear economic need. “It’s a giant market, there’s not a lot of competition,” he added.
On the subject of religious conservatism, namely Saudi Arabia’s gender segregation and the strict female dress code, Mr Reininger said Qiddiya would stay “on the leading edge” of changes in the country, which has eased many of those rules in recent years. However, whether it can rival neighbour Dubai, which allows alcohol consumption, remains to be seen.
Jon Truby, director of the Centre for Law and Development at Qatar University, is very sceptical of Saudi Arabia’s other mega-project, Neom, but sees some potential in this latest scheme. “Although designed in Saudi Arabia’s usual command-and-control style framework that operates in the absence of a system that encourages organic innovative growth, [Qiddiya could] serve as a model for family-friendly entertainment centres nationally, providing an alternative to the mostly adult-friendly options of Dubai,” he says.