Anyone with even a basic knowledge Middle Eastern history, geography, and culture knows of Saudi Arabia’s powerhouse capital city, Riyadh, its namesake royal family, the Al Sauds, and its predominant sect of Islam, Wahabism. However, not nearly as many have heard of the place that connects all three of these in a very historically significant way – Diriyah.
Now, thanks to efforts by the Saudi government to modernize the infrastructure in and around this otherwise obscure Riyadh suburb and make it a tourist destination in and of itself, the world will soon know the story of how this quaint village strewn with mudbrick houses, mosques, and even palaces has played a pivotal role in the history of Saudi Arabia – and soon, in its future as well.
Located only 15 kilometres northwest of the heart of Saudi Arabia’s modern-day capital of Riyadh, one can say that Diriyah is really the birthplace of the modern Saudi state and society. As the original capital of the ruling Al Saud family, the town is home to the first Saudi royal palace where the courts of the Al Saud emirs ruled the desert kingdom until the founding and transfer of the capital to nearby Riyadh.
In addition to birthing the royal family, Diriyah was also the home of Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahab, the 18th century founder and namesake of the style of Islam that still dominates Saudi society today. Although he was born about 40 kilometers northwest in the village of Al Uyaynah, Abd al-Wahab later settled in Dahiriyah where he forged and alliance with Mohammad bin Saud create an emirate that would grow into the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Abd al-Wahab’s descendants still lead the kingdom’s religious institutions and wield great influence in Saudi social and cultural affairs.
The historic At Turaif district in the center of Diriyah was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2010. Here visitors can find the Salwa and Saad bin Saud palaces, the At Turaif bath house, and the famed Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque where Abd al-Wahab preached and taught.
Diriyah may not have the flashiness of Riyadh’s glistening skyscrapers or the glamor of futuristic Neom, but it has something more important to Saudis – trademark heritage that defines the kingdom and what it is to be Saudi. As the head of the area’s new development authority explains, “Diriyah is what the Acropolis is to Athens and what the Colosseum is to Rome.”
Perhaps this is why the government chose this city as the first of the kingdom’s new six “giga projects” for investment and development. With $50 billion to work with, the goal of the newly formed Diriyah Gate Development Authority is to transform Diriyah from a sleepy suburb known only to Saudis into a world-renowned destination for both domestic and international tourism.
Jerry Inzerillo, the former CEO of Forbes Travel Guide and now chief executive of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, says that the project will see beautifully landscaped parks and gardens, refurbished infrastructure, and 18 new world-class restaurants, some of which will be aiming for a Michelin rating, all brought to the city in multiple phases, the first of which is expected to be completed in the first half of 2022.
Perhaps more importantly in the long run, “giga” investments such as these will bring much-needed employment opportunities for Saudi Arabia’s youthful population, 51% of which are under 25 years of age. These developments also represent new sources of revenue, especially foreign revenue, for the Saudi economy as the country moves towards the goal of boosting its non-oil GDP from 16% to 50% by 2030, as laid out in its Vision 2030 master plan.
To many on the outside, Saudi Arabia seems to lack historical appeal. Especially compared to the ancient civilizations that some of its neighbors to the west (Egypt), north (Sumeria and Babylon in Iraq), and east (Persia in Iran) have, Saudi’s few recent centuries of history seem relatively modern. But as the kingdom opens up more to the outside world, sites like Diriyah will play a key role in telling and weaving together its story and demonstrating that the future of tourism in Saudi Arabia is indeed worthwhile.