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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Saudi Arabia's massive entertainment project to rival Disney's resorts under way

The 'giga-project' near Riyadh is part of wider attempts to diversify the kingdom's economy

King Salman issued a decree to protect whistleblowers from mistreatment. Saudi Press Agency via AP Photo
King Salman issued a decree to protect whistleblowers from mistreatment. Saudi Press Agency via AP Photo

From Florida to Paris and Shanghai, Disney boasts a string of resorts across the world. Now, a complex that has been touted as a rival to the entertainment conglomerate’s popular parks is set to be launched in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi King Salman will on Wednesday inaugurate a multibillion dollar construction project near Riyadh that will include high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari park. American theme park corporation Six Flags agreed a deal this month to build a branded compound at the complex.

The Saudi hope is that the park, known as the Qiddiya project, will become the must-visit entertainment, sports and cultural hub in the kingdom.

The 33,400-hectare park is to be located about 25 miles south-west of the Saudi capital. The first phase of construction is scheduled for completion in 2022.

Salman will be joined by investors, local and international officials and company representatives at the ceremony on Wednesday.

The project is part of a wider effort to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from its dependence on oil. That effort is being led by the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the chief architect of the ambitious Vision 2030 modernisation project. Under the project the kingdom has lifted a ban on women driving and is now re-opening cinemas.

Saudi officials are conscious that the country has a young population that needs to be entertained if they are to remain in the kingdom and boost its economy amid lower oil prices.

“About two thirds of the kingdom’s population is under the age of 35. There is a great need for Qiddiya Project to provide them with entertainment,” Dr Fahd bin Abdullah Tounsi, an official working on the project, told the Saudi Press Agency.

He said that the project demonstrates the "relentless effort to develop giga-projects that will help achieve many direct and indirect economic returns". It will provide the Saudi economy with about $30 billion, Mr Tounsi estimated, which would be used "to develop the domestic economy and create new job opportunities for Saudi youth".

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Qiddiya chief executive Michael Reininger said he expects the project to draw foreign investors in entertainment and other sectors but did not specify the total cost of construction.

Saudi Arabia has dazzled investors with several plans for hi-tech "giga projects", funded in part by its sovereign wealth fund but some sceptics question their viability in an era of cheaper oil.

The reforms stem partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom has been sufferingfrom the effects of an oil slump since 2014.

The kingdom has unveiled blueprints to build NEOM, a mega project billed as a regional Silicon Valley, in addition to the Red Sea project, a reef-fringed resort destination — both worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Analysts say the projects could create funding pressures at a time when the government faces a yawning budget deficit and growth in the kingdom's non-oil economy is only slowly gathering pace.

In February, Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts this year, double the number of last year, and pump $64bn in the sector in the coming decade.

At a Beverly Hills event during the crown prince’s US visit, Saudi dignitaries struck a deal with touring company Feld Entertainment to host events including Disney on Ice.

As the colossal entertainment park project gets set in motion, Saudi royals are not only building projects to rival the company but courting its top executives to aid their objectives. As part of his US tour this month, the crown prince met Robert Allen Iger, chairman and chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, for talks on co-operation in the fields of entertainment, film and culture.

Young Saudis currently spend billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs such as Dubai and Bahrain. But if the Qiddiya project takes off as the Saudi royal family plans, the Riyadh complex could now become their entertainment hotspot of choice.

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