Earlier this month, Saudi Arabian officials announced plans to launch what looks set to become the largest cultural, sports, and entertainment city on the planet. The unnamed development, which is due to be constructed southwest of Riyadh in Al Qidiya, will cover an area of approximately 334km2. Phase 1 of the megaproject is scheduled to launch in 2022.
At this stage, it’s difficult to say exactly how this ambitious development will be implemented. Those planning the entertainment city will no doubt have to account for cultural and societal norms, such as moral considerations related to leisure activities and the country’s gender segregation practices. Nevertheless, with the backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and a host of other international stakeholders, officials appear confident that they can make the megaproject a success.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, chairman of PIF’s board of directors, is certainly optimistic about the development’s ability to make a positive impact, describing it as “a prominent cultural landmark and an important centre for meeting the future generation’s recreational, cultural, and social needs in the kingdom”.
Prince Mohammad also noted the project’s potential to support Saudi Vision 2030, stating that it would contribute to the diversification of the country’s economy away from oil-based sources of revenue, while creating job opportunities for its younger population.
It’s no secret that the kingdom must look beyond the energy sector to secure long-term prosperity. Spurred on by the low oil price, Saudi Vision 2030 is a prime example of the efforts to identify alternative revenue sources.
Entertainment will play a major role in this respect. In February 2017, UAE-based developer Majid Al Futtaim unveiled plans to build two new malls in Riyadh. One of these projects, Mall of Saudi, looks set to become the country’s largest retail complex, with 300,000m2 of shops, restaurants, and entertainment areas, and a huge indoor snow park to boot. During the same month, Jeddah hosted the inaugural Saudi Comic Con, which attracted more than 22,000 attendees; and, in March, the kingdom’s first Monster Truck event drew more than 30,000 spectators.
But the kingdom’s foray into the field of leisure is also likely to present certain challenges. For example, US-based Six Flags is expected to develop a $707m (SAR2.65bn) theme park within Al Qidiya’s entertainment city, and it is not yet clear how the firm will tailor attractions, such as water parks, to adhere to the country’s strict moral codes.
Even so, policy-makers seem committed to pushing ahead with the kingdom’s ambitious entertainment strategy, as evidenced by the establishment of the General Authority of Entertainment – a body designed to guide the development of the country’s leisure offerings in tandem with the private sector.
In my opinion, Saudi Arabia has the potential to grow into a world-class entertainment hub, providing that this transition is handled in a diplomatic manner. The main challenge will be to craft a bespoke leisure sector that is fit for the kingdom.