Diriyah & the House of Al Saud
The House of Al Saud
It pays to be obvious and bold at times, especially when it comes to nation building. Saudi Arabia is home to a modest culture, full of subtleties, but at its founding, the ruling family made clear who built the empire by naming the country Saudi Arabia, after the ruling Saud family. The direct translation of Saudi Arabia is “Saud’s Arabia”, leaving no room to question whose land it is.
Saudi’s royal family is certainly not the longest reigning in humanity’s history books; that title belongs to the Japanese who have had 126 monarchs serve to date. Saudi Arabia is a young Royal Kingdom in comparison, which had its start when Muhammad bin Saud founded Saudi Arabia’s first state, the Emirate of Diriyah, in 1727 – a mere 295 years ago. But to put it all into modern perspective, the Saud’s have ruled their part of the Middle East for 49 years longer than the United States of America have existed, the latter being founded in 1776. Though not the longest reigning monarchy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is home to the largest royal family in the world. The Guinness Book of Records stated back in 2002 that the House of Al-Saud had over 4,000 royal princes and over 30,000 royal relatives.
Welcoming the World
The Kingdom opened its doors to foreigners for the first time in 2019, by investing over US $1 trillion in leisure and cultural tourism. Some of these giga-project tourism assets are now finally coming online and being opened to the public in 2022 and 2023. It is the hope of the royal family that tourism will contribute somewhere between 10% to 15% of the country’s GDP by 2030; this is a monumental ambition, especially when one considers that five years ago, Saudi Arabia had no leisure tourism assets to speak of, except for religious tourism in the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Even business hotels were in short supply in the city, driving up costs.
Saudi Arabia is the 18th largest economy in the world, sandwiched between Indonesia and the Netherlands in the rankings, and the fastest growing economy in the world in 2022 at 7.6%. With an estimated GDP of US $1.7 trillion in 2022, a conservative 5% annual growth rate would put Saudi Arabia’s GDP to just over US $2.5 trillion by 2030. If so, the Vision 2030 targets for the country ask it to garner at least $250 billion in tourism revenues each year by the end of this decade; that’s equivalent to Saudi Arabia’s total non-oil revenues in 2017. It is the hope that the creation and restoration of several unique destination giga-projects will not only revive Saudi history and popularize it, but also put the Kingdom on many foreigners bucket-lists in the coming years. There is logic to these ambitions though. If neighbouring country Jordan, a country home to many cultural and historic relics and UNESCO world heritage sites, was able to garner 19.8% of its GDP from travel & tourism in 2019, Saudi Arabia seems convinced that with some investment and care – the Kingdom can also become a playground for the adventurous.
Just one obscure example is found near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s port city. On the gates leading into one of Jeddah’s oldest cemeteries is an inscription reading “Our Mother Eve”. The tomb lies further in, once 120 meters long, 3 meters wide, and 6 meters high, now the subject of ancient myth and controversy, could it be the burial place of Eve, the mother of mankind? Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is among the best-preserved lands on the globe, an untouched, untrampled-on vast land, with many ancient sites to explore.
Diriyah: The Birth Place
Infographic: The History Timeline of Diriyah and The House of Al-Saud
The origins of Saudi Arabia itself can be traced back to the founding of the Bedouin town of Diriyah (modern day Riyadh) by chief Mani Al Muraidi in the 15th century. Fast forward a few centuries, and Muraidi’s great great great-great grandson Abdulaziz bin Saud founded the First Saudi State, expanding his family’s reign across and beyond the Arabian Peninsula. The ruling family called themselves Al Saud, meaning the House of Saud in Arabic, a name which would stick for years to come. Later, Abdelaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud would declare himself King of the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia in 1932. For nearly a century now, Abdelaziz and his many sons have ruled the Kingdom, establishing an empire whose oil, wealth, and pedigree only continue to grow alongside its history.
As a ruling family to one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, the House of Al Saud is amongst the world’s wealthiest and most powerful royal families today. Al Saud has brought order and stability with the peaceful transitions of power taking place every generation, down the line of Al Saud descendants. Though for many generations, the Crown Prince was always the first-born son of the King, in 2006, a royal decree determined that future Saudi King’s were to be elected by a committee of Saudi Princes, known as the Allegiance Council.
Saudi Arabia continues to be the MENA region’s most influential ruling class by being the only MENA country to be represented in the G20 nations, and ensuring the Saudi royal family remain a consistent player in global politics and economy, while being custodians to the two Holy Mosques and stewards to the largest petroleum reserves in the world.
Home to Al Saud and birthplace of the Kingdom, Diriyah has served as the cultural capital of Saudi Arabia since 1727. Even after the First Saudi State fell in 1818, the Second Saudi State was centered on Diriyah, establishing the nearby city of Riyadh as its political capital while Diriyah remained the heart of the Kingdom. At the heart of Diriyah itself is At-Turaif, a jewel in the crown of Saudi Arabia dotted with royal palaces, mosques, and towers built of sandstone. These remains date back to the 18th century, but it wasn’t until 2010 that At-Turaif was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized and protected for its treasure trove of archaeological gems now on display in a large-scale detailed model of the city at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia.
Diriyah’s New Offerings
Now, after 4 years of construction, the renewed cultural capital of Saudi Arabia, Diriyah is already welcoming visitors today in the Kingdom’s efforts to stoke Saudi nationalism and present Saudi’s history. In fact, Diriyah is only one of two tourism giga-projects open to the public; the other being Al’Ula. The new Diriyah development showcases over 3 centuries of authentic culture, history, and architecture featuring an iconic mud-brick city backdrop as well as Najdi-style palaces and mosques centered around the First House of the Al Saud family. Salwa Palace is the largest single structure in Diriyah consisting of 7 architectural units built of mud and straw in succession from the First Saudi State in 1744 encapsulating the Kingdom’s origin story from well before the official founding of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. Salwa Palace is not the only palace on the grounds either; other palaces including the Grand Palace belonging to Prince Omar Bin Saud, as well as the Palaces of Prince Fahad bin Saud, Imam Abdullah bin Saud, Prince Saad bin Saud, Prince Meshari bin Saud, Prince Thunayan bin Saud, and Prince Turki bin Saud – all of which have been opened to the public.
Also Read: Explore Saudi’s Mega and Giga Projects that are Changing the Kingdom’s Tourism Landscape
Museum upon Museum
Diriyah Museum within the Palace is a series of artifacts, graphics, tour guides, and even laser light show presentations highlighting the royal family’s unity and achievements throughout Saudi history in the very spot where the unification of the Arabian Peninsula took place some 300 years ago. Diriyah is home to several other historical and cultural museums within At-Turaif, including the Military Museum and the Arabian Horse Museum. The Saudi Daily Life Museum showcases antiques and ruins to give visitors a feel of the traditional Saudi Arabian lifestyle lived by Diriyah locals many years ago. Future plans have been announced to build the world’s largest Islamic museum in the neighboring Bujairi district.
Fine Dining at Bujairi Terrace
Group CEO of Diriyah Gate Development Authority, Jerry Inzerillo, likens Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah to what the Acropolis is for Greeks and the Colosseum is for Italians. Diriyah allows visitors to experience the traditional mud houses and Najdi-style palaces that may just become as iconic to At-Turaif as the dug-outs of Australia, ice-hotels of Finland, and yellow taxis of New York. The historical site has become a shrine to design that puts Saudi Arabia on the world map of leisure tourism.
“There was a generation of Saudi Arabians that said, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of mud houses and that’s not our future," says Inzerillo, “but their King believes that national identity and the ongoing source of pride has got to be in a rich Saudi past.” In line with this strategy, the Kingdom recently inaugurated a national Founding Day holiday in February to honor Al Saud leaders and chiefs from the Diriyah-era. It seems Saudi Arabia is steeped in culture, even more so than Saudis may recognize themselves; but what the current descendants of AlSaud are recognizing is that the Kingdom can provide something that many say is lacking in the glitz and glamour of neighbouring gulf countries. With Diriyah in its arsenal, Saudi Arabia is sure to have a cultural mega-site on their hands.
Read Next: Diriyah: The Cultural Capital of Saudi Arabia