Interview: Amaala - Saudi Arabia’s ‘audacious’ Red Sea Riviera project

CEO Nick Naples talks about the elite sustainable resort on the Saudi Arabia’s western coast

  
An Asian labourer looks on as he works at the construction site of a building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image for illustrative purposes.

An Asian labourer looks on as he works at the construction site of a building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image for illustrative purposes.

REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

The giga-projects that are a hallmark of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan for economic diversification are going full-steam ahead, despite the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and forecasts from skeptics, and none more so than the plan to build the “Red Sea Riviera” on the Kingdom’s western coast.

“We are on track and broke ground earlier this summer,” Nick Naples, the CEO of Amaala, the company in charge of the ambitious project, told Arab News. The word “amaala” means “hope’ in Arabic, but the thinking behind the master plan represents more than just tentative aspiration.

“It is audacious, yet achievable,” he said, with phase one scheduled to be rolled out by 2024. “I am fortunate enough to be at the helm of an incredible project that will be groundbreaking in the areas of sustainability, wellness and philanthropy. I am working with professionals from around the world and have the privilege of seeing young Saudi talent grow and develop into the country’s leaders of tomorrow.

“However, with the pace of activity right now, there are simply not enough hours in the day for me to take a minute to enjoy and appreciate the great work being done.”

He is well-qualified to oversee the project, with three decades of experience in the luxury hospitality and leisure industry under his belt.

He has worked for some of the best-known names in these sectors including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Caesars Entertainment. He has been involved in mega-projects in the US and Macau, and delivered multibillion- dollar resort developments around the world.

Amaala is probably more ambitious than any of them. For one thing it is located in Saudi Arabia, which has only recently begun to market its historical, cultural and natural attractions to an international audience.

Second, it is unfolding at a time when discerning travelers want more than sun, sea and sand from their vacation. They want luxury and comfort on a grand scale, but also distinctive experiences and activities, and they want it all in an environmentally sound context. Amaala is planned as a standard-setter for sustainable tourism.

These challenges were foreseen from the beginning of the Amaala project in 2017, but the final hurdle surfaced earlier this year. The development is taking place in the middle of the biggest health and economic crisis for a century, when governments have been cutting back on spending to deal with the new realities of post-pandemic life.

Naples takes a realistic view. “These are challenging times and, as the world unites to fight the spread of COVID-19, we are seeing a growing impact on economies across the world. At Amaala, we are aware of the current operating environment and remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver a luxury destination that will be a disruptor in the sector.”


BORN: US.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree, Cornell University, New York.

CAREER

  • Resorts projects executive, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons.
  • CEO, Integrated Resorts International, US, China, Vietnam.
  • Hotel projects executive, Caesars Entertainment Corp.
  • COO, Macau Studio City.
  • CEO, Amaala.

In some ways, the timing of the pandemic was fortunate. “As we are in the early stages of development, our plans were not scuttled by the pandemic and we were able to progress as planned, while working remotely,” he said, at the same time allowing that the cancellation of some key events in the international calendar, like Arabian Travel Market, the Future Investment Initiative and the Monaco Yacht Show, affected his ability to market Amaala to potential partners and investors. “We are evolving to meet our needs,” Naples said.

Like the other big initiatives of Vision 2030, Amaala is managed and funded by the Public Investment Fund, the Kingdom’s fast-growing sovereign wealth investor, which has shown no sign of slowing down even during the financial and economic stresses of the pandemic.

The master plan envisages the creation of three “communities” on more than 4,000 square kilometers of land and marine environment on the Red Sea coast, roughly mid-way between the gigantic NEOM development to the north and the port city of Jeddah further south. It is close to the historic site of AlUla, also the center for a major tourism and cultural project.

Amaala’s three interconnected projects offer different visitor experiences.

Triple Bay will be a holistic wellness retreat with state-of-the-art medical facilities, as well as world-class sports infrastructure.

The Coastal Development will create an arts and cultural center, with a museum of contemporary art, a film festival venue, performing arts venues, and a biennale park.

The Island, the third development, will be an exclusive enclave where residents and visitors can relax in intimate resorts with first-class recreational and leisure facilities.

The three developments “will be distinct in purpose as well as design, but will be bound together by an innovative approach with sustainability at its core,” Naples said.

Foster & Partners has been appointed executive architects for the development, while other global design experts, like US design firm HKS and Denniston, led by award-winning Jean-Michel Gathy, are on board for specific facets of the master plan. All have sound sustainability credentials.

“Sustainability has never been undertaken and embraced on a project of this scale before. Existing properties’ sustainability aspirations largely involve playing catch-up to balance offsets but, over time, Amaala will meet these standards from the ground up, creating a coastal oasis?that?elevates the role of responsible tourism globally,” he added.

Amaala is located within the Mohammed bin Salman Natural Reserve, an area of outstanding natural and historic riches. It is the project’s mission to act as custodians of those assets, Naples said. Only 5 percent of the total area will actually be developed, with the rest earmarked for conservation and preservation.

The development includes plans for world-class yachting facilities as well as other marine leisure activities, but has also made firm commitments on coral reef management and species protection, including enforcing protected areas and combating plastic pollution.

The Amaala Marine Life Institute will have research and development facilities to study ocean conservation initiatives and apply them to the rest of the Kingdom’s coastline and to the world’s seas.

“Design and development will be carried out according to the highest global standards and we will be working with partners to meet the highest levels of sustainability throughout the design, build, and operation phases. Partnerships with international conservation foundations is testament to our steadfast commitment to the preservation of the local biosphere, especially the marine environment.” Naples said.

Who will travel to this elite development, especially in what some luxury experts have called the age of “post-opulence” in the wake of the pandemic?

“The concept of luxury tourism is evolving. Today’s most discerning global citizens are driven to discover personal experiences unlike any other — immersive, authentic, and realized through a journey of self-discovery. Our aim is to bring to life the desires and ambitions of a community obsessed with shaping and living transformative moments that will safeguard the planet’s natural resources,” Naples said.

“Amaala will be a disruptor in its sector and will redefine the ultra-luxury resort experience and the tourism experience in its entirety. It will set the standards for personalized service, with each guest crafting their own journey through the pillars that tie Amaala together.”

Its own airport — initially open for private jets and charters but ultimately a commercial facility that can also serve other attractions nearby on the Red Sea coast — will bring international visitors direct to the development. Some of the other mega-projects are believed to be considering special visa and administrative arrangements within their boundaries.

Naples is in no doubt about the challenges of tourism in the Kingdom.

“We need to build a robust tourism infrastructure within a short period of time and present the same level of excellence and expertise that global travelers are used to in key destinations around the world,” he said.

There is a domestic challenge too. “We also need to attract more Saudi nationals to the tourism sector by creating opportunities for growth and development. This will mean attracting the best experts from around the world and having them mentor the next generation of Saudi tourism experts,” he said.

Naples underlined the “audacious” nature of the Amaala project, but is at ease with its long-term viability.

“We are confident the stunning natural environment, combined with unique culture and innovative experiences, will appeal to our guests. We will awaken the world’s imagination through unrivaled quality, sustainability, and community,” he said.

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