Gulf Insider interviews Ahmad Darwish, Group Chief Administrative Officer of the Red Sea Development Company.
What is the Red Sea Project (TRSP)?
We wanted to create a destination that is luxurious but regenerative at the same time. It is 28,000 square kilometers in size – the size of a country. The objective is to set new standards for sustainable development and position Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map. It has been in preparation for the last five years, and now is in its implementation phase where the customers are beginning to see this vision come into reality.
Where did the idea come from? Why did you decide develop this area into a tourist destination?
The area we were tasked with developing, and protecting at the same time, naturally lends itself to tourism in terms of its weather, it’s beauty, and the diversity of landscapes and activities that can be enjoyed. We started looking at the natural assets and resources in the Kingdom, brainstormed how we can develop around these assets, and at the same time protect them. We wanted to enhance the life of the people around this area and present a definite positive impact.
Approximately 75% of the islands will not be developed. We leave them intact. We make sure that the endangered species are left untouched so that they can thrive in their location. All these are results of our care and passion for the environment, which is an important asset. If we lose that asset, it would be just like any other project in the world – and this is what differentiates us in terms of delivery.
How does this project compare with other upcoming and already existing projects in Saudi Arabia like NEOM, AlUla, etc?
Saudi Arabia is now opening up for tourists. All the existing big projects are making a huge impact on job creation. At the end of the day, every project complements each other. For example, NEOM is the city of the future while we focus on luxury regenerative tourism. Once all these projects are complete, the tourists would spend more time in the country visiting all the destinations.
That is the ultimate beauty of developing several destinations in the country. We would like to do it in the perfect way possible with increased standards and being ahead in innovation. We want to do things differently and be recognized globally. The ambition we have is not just to deliver a project, but to have a much bigger global impact.
What technological innovations have you employed in this ambitious project?
We are making efforts to have a smart destination with seamless technology to make the journey smoother for visitors. It will be used to monitor the environment and provide services as part of the smart destination strategy. The beauty of this destination is that it’s a Greenfield where we can easily design and deliver to the highest expectation when it comes to smart capabilities and smart technologies.
We are delivering a project and at the same time, building an organization with the latest technologies. This is not so easy, because they are two parallel tracks. A lot of activities that we are doing, right from the beginning, showcase that we are on top of it.
It has been mentioned that the destination will be developed to the highest standards of sustainability. How will this be measured?
We are taking all the right steps to fully align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We issued the first sustainability report among other Giga projects. We are also creating a sustainability performance management system to measure all our KPIs related to sustainability which helps to be on track for environmental, social and economics-related matters.
In addition, we just got the ISO 14,001 this year. This is the first Saudi Giga project to achieve such an accreditation. The last thing for measurement is the Green Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB). We got 84 assets last year and 91 this year in its evaluation, which is a very high independent score, and we will continue to push the numbers higher. We are never going to be satisfied.
This is who we are. We always have a regenerative approach of asking the team, “What is next? How can we achieve the next level of enhancement?”
How will the project benefit and generate opportunities for local communities and residents?
We offered a Vocational Training Program to prepare young Saudis in different career tracks needed at TRSP. Students who successfully complete the two year, three month program will obtain a diploma degree and will be employed in careers that support TRSP or any of its partners. We have done 500 vocational trainings for students graduating in two years. We have a scholarship program with the University of Prince Mugrin (UPM), in collaboration with Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) for hospitality. Around 120 students are already doing an outstanding job, being part of the Red Sea Development Company.
We also have an Elite Graduate Program for fresh graduates. They are the future leaders. We give them an opportunity for on-the-job training where they work with the best expertise. There are more than a hundred graduates gaining experience at present. We train, develop, and make them part of the organization. We are targeting more than 2,000 graduates from the local communities working for our partners and contractors.
Our study on hospitality showed that the young talents are keen to shift from typical jobs in oil and gas to tourism and hospitality. This is in-line to the vision 2030. We see a huge interest in new jobs which we need to cater for. We put the right curriculums, bring in the right operators and partners with us to support and achieve these targets.
It is not that we hire just one person; we are opening an opportunity for a whole family to be able to benefit from this beautiful project.
Where do you see the Saudi tourism sector in the next five years?
Our ambitions are very high. We are taking the right steps at the right time – an everlasting evolution. We are part of the bigger umbrella where the whole Kingdom is evolving into a tourist destination. So, in the next five years, we will have a lot of projects that are active, just like TRSP. We will have almost 60 resorts or possibly more that are active, just like the Red Sea Project that will have 50 resorts by 2030.
Saudi Arabia can tell the whole world to come and visit. It is not just the assets that are being developed, but also the hospitality built within. We love to welcome guests into our country. If you come to our project site now, people will take you to their homes and certainly offer dinner. If this level of hospitality is coupled with proper infrastructure, support and training, it will be an authentic experience for the visitors and that’s what we are aiming for.