One of several giga-projects in Saudi Arabia launched by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Qiddiya is set to become what may be the largest entertainment destination in the world. LEADERS K.S.A. sat down with Qiddiya’s chief executive officer, MICHAEL REININGER, to find out more.

Can we begin by talking about the location?

The first thing that strikes you about the Qiddiya site is its size. At about 334 square kilometers, it is very likely going to be the largest area anywhere in the world dedicated to a destination solely oriented around entertainment, sports and culture. Beyond its unparalleled size though, the project site has many other important and distinct features that we will capitalize on to make Qiddiya unique, connected and lasting for our audiences. The site is part of the 1000-plus kilometer Tuwaiq mountain range and is endowed with breathtaking vistas and a natural landscape punctuated by 200-meter cliffs that most people will find stunning and inspiring. Furthermore, being only 40 kilometers from Riyadh, the site also has many important culturally and geologically rich tales to tell that we will weave into all facets of the project. We will respect, preserve, and build upon this remarkable location.

The project is being described as the world’s largest entertainment destination. Tell us about that.

The scale of Qiddiya proportionally illustrates the opportunity that exists for a project like this: A one-of-a-kind experience within thirty minutes of a major city with a very strong growth profile in a nation whose spending habits demonstrate their demand for quality entertainment, culture and sports opportunities. The scale of Qiddiya also represents the commitment of Saudi’s leadership to respond to the desires of the Saudi people, all the while stimulating the organic growth of entirely new industries within the overall economy.

This project will ultimately support the central goals outlined in Vision 2030 and make these lifestyle opportunities accessible and available for Saudis and visitors alike.

What will Qiddiya offer to its guests?

Because of the scale, the project will be very broad in its scope. We are basing our vision on what we call 5 cornerstones. These are values or strategic imperatives that will guide the content and delivery of a large portfolio of offerings along with the support facilities and industries needed to sustain Qiddiya as a self-contained economic ecosystem. The cornerstones are: parks and attractions; motion and mobility; nature and environment; sports and wellness; and culture, arts, and education. These will give rise to theme parks, entertainment centers, desert and asphalt tracks for motor sports; water and snow-based activities; nature and safari experiences; and an array of historical, cultural, sports and educational activities – just to name a few. But that’s only the half of it. The best retail, residential, and hospitality offerings will underpin the entire development to form a fully-integrated entertainment destination. In other words, Qiddiya will offer something for everyone.

Local media are reporting that the project infrastructure alone could cost as much as 30 billion riyals. That’s about $8 billion. How is the project being financed?

There is always a tendency with these kinds of initiatives to focus on a single metric or look for a simple cost figure. Certainly, as we have discussed, the scale of the project makes the investment required to realize our aspiration very large. But what’s important is not the absolute number, but the magnitude of the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s commitment to Qiddiya and the confidence it demonstrates in the overall development. Another important point to note is the pledge to find appropriate regulatory and financial frameworks that will enable and encourage additional investment from others. This will include local Saudi investment from the private sector, as well as foreign direct investment. There will also likely be opportunities for large consolidated investments and many small and medium-scaled opportunities, which will stimulate the local economy in an important way. Qiddiya sits at the center of an enormous, untapped market. With little competition, there’s near limitless opportunity for the future. We think that’s the kind of thing that many will want to invest in.

How is Qiddiya progressing?

Well, it’s still early days. A ground-breaking ceremony attended by the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Salman and H.R.H. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, took place at the end of April and officially announced Qiddiya and the immense opportunity it presents to the world. From here, the project progresses in phases over several years with the initial phase of completion expected in 2022. That is when we will have a grand opening ceremony with a large compliment of offerings across all our cornerstones. We have already announced a partnership with Six Flags. The signature facility we are developing with them will be an important highlight of the initial phase and complemented by a range of other facilities, programs, resort destinations, cultural facilities and events to capture the imagination of our guests, fulfilling the aspirations we have for Qiddiya. Future phases will build upon our initial program, and we will evolve with our target markets and guests as their expectations and desires change after experiencing Qiddiya’s unprecedented offerings. Having scale gives us the luxury of adaptability. And this attribute gives us longevity. We aren’t waiting until 2022 to make an impact, though. Look out for new announcements about the project and some early programs that will begin to take shape well in advance of the 2022 grand opening.

What kind of market response do you anticipate?

It’s been estimated that Saudis spend more than $30 billion a year on tourism and entertainment outside of the kingdom. With a view to recapturing some of that enormous spending, Vision 2030, the blueprint for the future of the kingdom, calls for spending on culture and entertainment within the kingdom to increase from about 3% of household income to 6%. We believe Qiddiya will be instrumental in achieving that objective. It will do so by providing currently unavailable entertainment options for residents to explore and experience without the need to travel to other countries. The latent demand in the kingdom for recreation and entertainment undoubtedly exists. With an estimated two thirds of the Saudi population under 35, and over 7 million people residing within 40 kilometres of Qiddiya, we believe there will be a huge demand for our products and services.

What are some of the most important social and economic impacts of the project?

In accordance with Vision 2030, Qiddiya will unlock tremendous opportunity, catalyze economic diver sification and enhance the quality of life for Saudi citizens – each of which are core aspirations of the vision. Qiddiya will create thousands of job prospects for young Saudis and open up currently nonexistent channels for the private sector in various industries. Right now, some 50 people are directly employed by Qiddiya, with hundreds more contracted as local suppliers and global advisors. Those numbers will climb to reach over 50,000 by 2022. By 2030, Qiddiya expects to contribute around 17 billion riyals or about $4.5 billion to the country’s gross domestic product and will provide nearly 60,000 jobs. Perhaps most importantly, Qiddiya will make a significant positive impact on the lives of Saudi citizens, particularly to the capital of Riyadh, which is set to become one of the world’s top 100 cities to live in.

You were appointed as Qiddiya’s CEO just a few months ago. Tell us a little bit about your academic and career background that informs your vision leading this project.

I am an architect by training, so that background has me always looking for new, creative and innovative solutions to even the toughest challenges. I also deeply value the insights and lessons I have learned from great ideas, great leaders and great talent. These collective experiences have taught me that a leader develops a clear point of view, surrounds the goal with the best talent for the given task and then maintains discipline, tenacity and optimism throughout as the natural challenges and impediments come to bear. After all, architects are natural optimists because we see a future state that is a better place and have trained ourselves to combine the art with the science (and hard work) to see that future come to fruition.

I imagine the expectations to make Qiddiya a success must be an immense responsibility for you?

You’re right. But at the same time, over the last thirty years, I’ve had the great fortune of being associated with many large-scale and one of kind projects in a variety of industries, including a 12-year tenure with Walt Disney where I was responsible for large-scale resort developments in Florida and Europe and started the Disney Cruise Line. And no matter the scale of the project, I’ve always focused first and foremost on quality and guest experience. My aim is to make this project make a difference to the Saudi people–and have fun doing that!

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