QIDDIYA (Reuters) – Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attended the ground-breaking ceremony on Saturday of a vast entertainment resort that is at the heart of an ambitious strategy to open the economy and ease social restrictions.
Qiddiya, about an hour’s drive from Riyadh, is being built on a 334 square kilometre (8,400-acre) site, making it 2-1/2 times the size of Disney World.
It will include a Six Flags theme park, water parks, motor sports, cultural events, and vacation homes. A spokesman said Qiddiya expects to attract 1.5 million visitors annually when the first phase opens in 2022.
Local media have reported the cost of the infrastructure alone would reach up to 30 billion riyals ($8 bln) and the project would eventually be worth tens of billions of riyals.
Little more than a week after Saudi Arabia opened its first cinema after a nearly four-decade ban, the author of the reforms, Prince Mohammed, and his father attended the lavish launch ceremony, which featured a live orchestra, fireworks and a vocal performance praising both leaders.
“Today, we invite investors, creators, and operators from around the world to explore what a one-of-a-kind project like Qiddiya has to offer,” CEO Michael Reininger told government officials, foreign dignitaries and businessmen gathered in a temporary open-air auditorium.
“We will seek the best to help us, as we invent a new entertainment experience for all residents and visitors to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Mr Reininger told Reuters that Qiddiya was 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 (PIF).
PIF has two other major initiatives: NEOM – a $500 billion business and industrial zone extending into Egypt and Jordan – and a Red Sea project, which includes a nature reserve, diving in coral reefs and heritage sites on about 50 islands.
Mr Reininger would not specify the expected investment value for Qiddiya except to describe it as “incredibly sizeable”.
Some 50 people are directly employed by Qiddiya, with hundreds more contracted as local suppliers and global advisors. Those numbers are expected to reach 55,000 by 2022.
The project aims to be the centre of entertainment, cultural and sports activity in a country that has shunned such activities on religious grounds but is now pursuing them to generate economic returns and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.