RIYADH: “To be a good neighbor, you have to be there in the community. You have to serve the community.”
This is the philosophy that drives Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA), in his work. In an exclusive interview with Arab News he revealed how the authority aims to be an integral part of the Diriyah community. A good example of how this translates into action is the fact that 15 percent of the organization’s employees come from the area.
“The community does not serve DGDA,” he said. “Thanks to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Ahmad bin Abdullah, who has done an amazing job as governor (of Diriyah), we’re putting a lot of money into hiring within our community.”
Speaking against the spectacular backdrop of Salwa Palace, a popular local attraction and one of his favorite places, Inzerillo said DGDA is investing in its community by organizing job fairs and establishing scholarships to ensure the citizens of Diriyah are the first to benefit from job and business opportunities.
“We can prepare them for their future role in the Kingdom … any small commercial businesses, food trucks, musicians, artists, anything … we hire them before we hire anyone from Riyadh because the benefit has got to go to the community,” he added.
The G20 Saudi Secretariat recently hosted a cultural dinner for media delegates, envoys and other guests at historic Al-Turaif district, which is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. It included a virtual “family portrait” of the heads of state of the G20 nations, which was displayed on the walls of Salwa Palace.
Spearheaded by the crown prince two years ago when it was announced that Saudi Arabia would hold the presidency of the G20 in 2020 and its annual summit would take place in Riyadh, the original plan was for the leaders of member countries to attend the dinner in person and pose in front of the palace for a group photo, Inzerillo said.
The COVID-19 pandemic scuppered that plan, and so instead of an in-person gathering, an image of the world leaders was instead displayed on the palace walls.
“The picture went viral around the world and already has hundreds of millions of views — that one picture showing the birthplace of the Saudi Kingdom,” Inzerillo said. “So, now it is a picture that will live in history 20 years … 40 years, 100 years from now: that first picture from a G20 summit held in an Arab country.
“No one deserves it more than (King Salman) — it’s because of him that Al-Turaif has been restored with the dignity it deserves, given its rich history.”
Inzerillo revealed that Al-Turaif means a great deal to him not because of the role it played in the history of Saudi Arabia, but also in his own life.
“I’m an American but I came to study Al-Turaif 24 years ago and I love it,” he said. “That’s why when the Crown Prince offered me the chance to become DGDA CEO, I said it would be the biggest honor of my 50-year career. Al-Turaif is a very special place and will soon become one of the great gathering places in the world.”
Diriyah is considered one of the jewels in the Kingdom’s crown. A number of major projects are under way or planned that aim to transform it into the country’s foremost cultural and lifestyle destination.
Inzerillo said that next year a number of new attractions will open as part of the development of Wadi Hanifa, which is becoming a popular destination for the younger generation in particular, thanks to its cooler climate.
“We’re putting in tens of thousands of new palm trees and creating large parks, we’re going to have walking and jogging trails, cafes and restaurants, horses, petting zoos and activities,” he said. “It’s going to be so much fun to be in the wadi because there will be plenty to do.”
Other notable projects include the construction of three metro stations in Diriyah linked to a line connecting with the airport, along with parking for 25,000 vehicles. And in Al-Bujairi, 22 new restaurants and a new esplanade are expected to be completed by the end of next year, Inzerillo said.
“A lot of times you see people announce big plans but you don’t see them (start) for five to 10 years,” he added. “That’s not with case with the crown prince — you see them starting the next year.
“It’s a personal pleasure (to be working with the crown prince) because I think he’s probably the best boss I’ve had in 50 years. He’s extremely smart, he has an unbelievable visual acuity and aesthetic. He approves all the renderings, all the drawings … but he’s very kind and he’s not bossy.
“The crown prince is as strict as his father about the preservation of cultural integrity and cultural heritage. He will not allow us to remove a single palm tree or touch the mud without approval from the cultural committee. This is thoughtful. It is because he knows that it’s special.”
Inzerillo said that if the ongoing developments are to succeed in helping to fulfill the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 — in particular to encourage healthy lifestyles and build a vibrant, dynamic society — a form-based code (FBC) is required. This is a way of regulating development that prioritizes control of the form or character of buildings ahead of their use. FBC is commonly used around the work in areas rich in culture and heritage, such as the Greek islands, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Knightsbridge in London.
“This is one of the principal tasks of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City,” he said. “Diriyah is very special because it conforms more to the classical Najdi architecture right now.”
The adoption of FBC in the development of Diriyah celebrates “the look and the authenticity of the Najdi architecture, which is fundamental to the cultural preservation of the Saudi state,” he added.
“Our form-based code aims to give our community in Diriyah a look consistent with the architectural principles of Najd,” said Inzerillo. “So it will take a little bit of work, especially the first year, … but it will have an effect on what people see.
“It will upgrade all the neighborhoods, all the roads, the aesthetics, the quality of life, sidewalks, streets, lights, the places where people can walk and ride bicycles, and even horse trails and bridle paths.”
He added that the end result of all the hard work will be the transformation of the area into one of the most beautiful locations in the world.
Inzerillo said that in a career spanning 53 years, his work at the DGDA is his favorite and most joyful assignment, adding that it has been “by far the biggest and the most challenging” project he has been involved in.
“That’s why I always say there’s only one Diriyah,” he said.