Philippe Gas is the new CEO of the Qiddiya Investment Project in Saudi Arabia. He spoke exclusively to blooloop about what people can expect from the multi-billion dollar giga-project.
Qiddiya aims to be the capital of entertainment, sports and the arts in Saudi Arabia. Located 45 kilometres away from the centre of Riyadh, it will offer a range of park and attractions, as well as wellness facilities, sports and leisure, motorsports, arts and culture and access to nature. It will also be home to 10,000 residences.
Qiddiya forms part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan. This is a framework for how the country will diversify its income going forward.
Before joining the Qiddiya team, Philippe Gas worked for the Walt Disney Company for nearly 30 years. During this time he served as the President/CEO of Disneyland Paris from 2008 until 2014. He was also President/General Manager of Shanghai International Theme Park and Resorts Management Company for Shanghai Disney Resort from 2014 to 2019.
Hitting the ground running
Philippe Gas took on the position of CEO at the Qiddiya Investment Company in November of this year. He says that he is already settling in well in his new role, thanks to the rest of the team:
“I have felt extremely welcome, both in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but especially here at Qiddiya. The staff are super, they are young, passionate and energetic. I was on the site today and they showed me around. You can see the pride and how they feel about the project.”
“Overall it has been a very easy transition for me,” says Gas, who has had to hit the ground running and get to grips with the project quickly since his arrival. However, he says “that’s the exciting part of the job. That’s what I was prepared psychologically to find. Right now, I’m pretty excited to get started.”
Philippe Gas and Qiddiya
Philippe Gas had been with Disney since 1991. Talking about what tempted him to move onto this new role, he says it was the sheer ambition and vision of the Qiddiya project.
“I’ve been fortunate enough, with the Walt Disney Company, to go around the world and to be exposed to a lot of challenges, projects and opportunities to learn. The last big one being Shanghai Disney, the biggest investment ever done by the company outside of the US and its first entry into the Chinese market.”
“I had the chance throughout my career to work with and be coached or mentored by various people and all of them share one thing that they also gave to me, which is, whenever you have the chance to be able to take a risk or take a chance to contribute to the world around you – do it, take it. And you get to a point in your life where this is important
“This is a super exciting project. It is the world’s biggest venture when it comes to entertainment, sport, the arts, all together and integrated. This has never been done before. So the complexity of it is exciting.
“But above and beyond that, it is this opportunity to be part of the transformation of the country. To change the perception of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia around the world. To bring more happiness to the people of Saudi, to meet a demand that exists for entertainment and leisure in the country.”
“The vision that the Crown Prince has put together for the Kingdom is really about the transformation of the country,” says Gas. “From economic diversification to social development, to the development of wellness and wellbeing for the people of Saudi Arabia. It is creating a country that really changes its positioning in the world and its dependency on oil.
“Tourism comes next, and this is definitely where you have a unique integrated city, for lack of a better word, that combines all those different polls. This is what makes it so different from anything that has been done before.
“[Qiddiya] is contributing to so many things that are aligned with what the Crown Prince has defined for Saudi Arabia. When you look at the different giga-projects, I would say that most of them have a very specific destination. So we are the only one that combines all this. Qiddiya is going to be able to, I believe, (in the right way) shock the world, by showing what the people of Saudi have been able to achieve and demonstrate. So firstly, it will contribute to the development of tourism.”
Social impact and wellbeing
“The second thing is the social impact and this is going to be tremendous,” says Philippe Gas. “It will have a direct contribution to the creation of jobs. Tens of thousands of people will be working directly here at Qiddiya thanks to the scale of the development and the infrastructure around, developing all that area south-west of the city of Riyadh. So there is the social and economic development of the surroundings and the country.”
“And, last but not least, there is also wellbeing and the health of the population. This destination fits in with what we know of Saudi. Two-thirds of the population is under 30, it is a population with high energy and eagerness to be able to go out and spend time with a loved one, to share memories and get excited.
“Hopefully, how vibrant the space will be will contribute to changing the perception of Saudi Arabia and will make people from the outside look at the country as a destination, one that is worth having on their list of things that they want to do as a priority. I believe we are completely in sync with this.”
A huge project
“I just came back from the site and it is going beyond what your eyes can see. When you sit on the cliff and you look at the site, it is just an amazingly vast destination with a fantastic landscape, with this cliff of 200 metres that separates the resort zone and the city that will be built.
“It is almost three times the size of Walt Disney World. It is huge. This is a place that will, by its size, offer people days of entertainment.”
A wide range of entertainment on offer
Amongst many other things, Qiddiya will be home to a brand new Six Flags and a water park, as well as a speed zone. “We will have a FIA Grade 1 chance capable of hosting a Formula One Grand Prix,” says Gas. “We also held the Dakar Rally.
“There will also be a stadium, gaming opportunities, an arena, a performance centre for the arts. This is going to be accompanied by golf courses and hotels of different levels and all will be immersed in the story of Qiddiya.”
“I think the beauty of it will be this kind of harmony. The story of Qiddiya has to be consistent throughout. So, even though we work with our partners to define their creative concepts, they will all go into this one story.
“We talk about the Qiddiya ‘golden thread’ – this ability to combine modernity, innovation, technology and thrill with the beauty and the culture of Saudi and the history of Saudi. Because we talk about the future, but there’s no future without history. And that is where it all collides and comes into one place and that place will be Qiddiya.”
Phase One of the Qiddiya project is expected to be open by 2023. Philippe Gas gives us an update on the construction so far, as well as talking about how it has been affected by the global pandemic.
“So far in 2020, we have not been impacted by COVID. So we have been able to sustain the pace of the work on the site.
“We did award around 2 billion Saudi Riyals of contracts over the last year and most of them were about the key work that has to take place, in terms of ground preparation, road and infrastructure to help all the government contractors to come in and start to work on the different destinations.”
Construction and infrastructure
“So this is going on, powerlines, electricity, preparing the land, flattening it, getting it ready for the construction for the different sites. This is, I would say, so far on pace. We have, as a focus for the coming few weeks, mostly between now and the early next year, a lot of work around mobility and transportation to Qiddiya from Riyadh.
“We are looking at the master plan, making sure that everything is in the right place and everything is correct so we can push forward. The focus now, as soon as the year ends, will be getting into execution. The next two years are going to be about delivering on the products and this will be done with our partners, especially Six Flags and the others.”
Building from the ground up
Having been involved in the opening of both Disneyland Paris and Shanghai Disney, Philippe Gas is no stranger to large projects like this.
“What you need to preserve over the years, as you get into these massive operations, is a start-up mindset,” he says. “You have to be nimble. Today Qiddiya has 510 employees. When I moved to Shanghai we had 250 and we ended up opening with around 18,000 so you see how the rate goes.”
“This being said, especially in the early years of your operation, you’re also going to learn even more than you have learned before. So you have to be able to change what you thought was right and adapt. Because, at one point in time, everything goes into the hands of the consumers. And they tell you what they like, they tell you what they want.
“You see it live and you have to be able to adapt. You have to be able to put your pride aside. Put your processes on the side and just be able to be effective. It is important to always keep the customer in the centre of everything.”
Learning and adapting
“It is exciting, creating a culture of start-up, creating a culture of innovation and motivation,” says Gas. “You compensate a lot of the lessons by energy, passion, ambition and pride. And that is something that people transmit to each other.”
“At that point in time and as you grow, you need to keep that mindset. You need to stay focused on adaptation. It takes years before you get to this base steady state. Especially in a market like this that itself is just starting up in hospitality, in entertainment, in service.
“I think one of the biggest lessons for me from my past that I can apply here is to keep the culture and keep the organisation focused on what matters. Move away from what doesn’t matter and keep it real.”
Embracing Saudi culture at Qiddiya
Disney’s Executive Chairman, Bob Iger, famously said that Shanghai Disney was authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese. When he worked on that project, Gas immersed himself in the culture of China, travelling around the country. Like Shanghai Disneyland, Qiddiya aims to reflect and celebrate the unique culture of the country where it is based.
“You can’t describe Qiddiya in one sentence,” says Gas. “But first of all, it’s a celebration of life. It is an extraordinary way for people at every stage of their lives to celebrate life, to share time together.”
Nothing is big enough. Nothing is wild enough. And I’m sure you will be very surprised to see some of the things we’ll communicate in the next few months
“It is about freedom, spending time together, having fun. Life is too short sometimes, so just go ahead and enjoy things. We’ve seen that in 2020.
“So it’s the celebration of life on one side. But it is also embracing the history of Saudi Arabia and the culture of Saudi Arabia and looking to the future. This world that we are creating will be all about innovation and technology, and things that you have not even seen before.
“Nothing is big enough. Nothing is wild enough. You will be very surprised to see some of the things we’ll communicate in the next few months. Coming from a very creative company, this is like a dream come true for me.”
Qiddiya and the PIF
Like Philippe Gas’s previous Disney projects in both Paris and Shanghai, Qiddiya has the government as a major partner.
“We have a management team of experts, people in each of the areas that know what they are doing,” says Gas. “People with huge amounts of experience when it comes to entertainment, sports, operations, development, real estate, everything.
“But at the end of the day, we have to make sense of that Vision 2030. We are very aligned with His Royal Highness, with our board, which is our shareholder, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). So it’s about alignment, it’s about working together, it’s about transparency.”
“You are a business, there is a vision, and you’re here to make it work. You’re here to make the right adjustments to make those vision come together. And in the case of Qiddiya, the beauty is that there is one shareholder, there is one stakeholder, and he is behind all this. He and the board are very involved.
“In my contacts with them, with the passion they transmit, you know that you are backed. You know that they are as excited, maybe even more excited than you can be. Because they had this vision for a long time and they see the big picture. I truly am very thankful for the fact that we’re all in this together, and we will all succeed together.”
Sustainability and a desire to minimise Qiddiya’s environmental impact, are also key factors in the development of this project.
“Saudi is getting more and more involved in sustainable development and we want to have a contribution,” says Philippe Gas. “So we focus clearly on key areas. We are currently wrapping up programmes around the development of biodiversity, the conservation of biodiversity.”
More and more, you want to have a lesser carbon footprint, you want whatever you develop to be sustainable
“That’s something very important for us. There will be an entire nature part of what we’re doing that we’ll be focusing on, creating that place for the fauna to be able to expand and develop.
“Waste management, water consumption and biodiversity are the top three that we will focus on. More and more, you want to have a lesser carbon footprint, you want whatever you develop to be sustainable. We are also working with local companies and local producers so that’s another piece of our contribution to sustainability.”
A large workforce
Qiddiya will generate many employment opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Philippe Gas says that he has already observed people’s passion for the project first-hand, in his short time in the country so far.
“Firstly, the brand is extremely well known here in Saudi. When [my new role] was announced, I was getting more than 1000 messages a day, most of them from Saudi people who just welcomed me and wanted to tell me how proud they are of what Qiddiya represents.
“This is a reflection of the energy of the country – the passion and the energy behind this transformation work that is happening.”
“Secondly, it is a very young population. The service industry is nascent. There is not a hospitality or entertainment or service industry. There are not thousands of people already trained and ready to operate. But what we have going for us in Saudi is the youth of the population, the amazing kindness of everybody, that generosity. And this is the key.
“You can have the best training. But if you don’t have that passion, that pride, that energy, then you have nothing. Technology and technique are not going to replace that.
“With our human resources department, we have started to work with different schools. We are developing our own Qiddiya University and Development Centre. But what is key, and the great thing that we have in this country, is that shared energy. The passion for what those projects will present for the country and for them, for their development.”
Philippe Gas says that Qiddiya will tell a story about Saudi Arabia:
“I talk about this connection between the traditional Saudi, the modern Saudi. And you can have this harmony developed in all the landscapes, the key iconic points of the different resorts around Qiddiya.
“It’s also going to be about a place where it’s life always and everywhere. There is always going to be something different. The programming that we have of entertainment, for example, is going to be massive.”
“It is about sharing experiences. And you get to do this through entertainment, innovation, sports, speed and thrill. But also through relaxation and health and wellness and nature. So there are these key components that will drive people, centred around sharing time together
“When you tell your story differently, you don’t need to have specific IPs. But there will also be some famous and iconic brands and IPs coming.”
Qiddiya’s target audience
Qiddiya’s local market, of those living with 100 miles of Qiddiya, spans 7.1 million people. Of these, 4.7 million are Saudi citizens and 2.4 million are expats. The project’s domestic market is made up from the rest of the KSA, which is 27.1 million. Finally, the international market includes tourists from outside the Kingdom, including visitors from neighbouring GCC countries.
“This is part of an overall exercise of the transformation of the country,” says Gas. “So hopefully Qiddiya, along with the other giga-projects around Saudi Arabia, will be a drive for international consumers to come and want to visit Saudi Arabia.
“Over the next 10 years, we know overall visitation [to Saudi Arabia] will grow. The country has opened up, you can have a tourist visa now. Qiddiya is not just for Saudi. It is our contribution to the opening up of Saudi to the world, and the transformation of the perception of Saudi Arabia.”
However, the majority of Qiddiya’s consumers will be from Saudi Arabia, says Gas.
“As a percentage of GDP spent, the people from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are number one in the world, along with Americans.”
There will be things for them that have never been seen before, that will make them proud
Currently, due to a lack of high-quality leisure and entertainment offerings locally, Saudis are mainly accessing entertainment abroad. In fact, residents of Saudi Arabia spend $23 billion on outbound tourism.
“This where you have an opportunity to meet that demand,” says Gas. “There will be things for them that have never been seen before, that will make them proud. And they will be able to get that economic contribution back into the country.”
Six Flags Qiddiya
There are many more attractions and experiences still to be announced. But one thing we know for sure is that Six Flags will be heading to Qiddiya. This will be home 28 themed rides and attractions, including the longest, tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world.
“Six Flags will be home to unprecedented attractions, says Philippe Gas. “One of the rides being built will have the fastest acceleration ever. So that’s one example of the kind of thing you can expect.”
“Hopefully, there will also be an amazing opportunity to discover the world of motorsports. And there will be a lot of events. One thing that people tend to forget is that Saudi is opening up to the world of music and live festivals too.
“We will be able to entertain in spaces bigger than Coachella, for example. So you’re going to see those massive events that will be marking the world. And that’s what we are about, perception changing and providing people who want to be entertained, with it right at their doorstep.”