Published On:July 17 2020
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Saudi Arabia's Red Sea development dreams begin to take shape.

While the global tourism industry is reeling from the effects of Covid-19 on international travel and travellers choose to stay put, one of the most ambitious luxury leisure developments in the world is quietly taking shape in a corner of Saudi Arabia rightly described as the last hidden gem in the world. Jola Chudy speaks to Red Sea Development Company CEO Jon Pagano about how a quest to build a resort of unmatched luxury goes hand in hand with a determination to safeguard and protect priceless natural habitats for generations to come.

Unless you have a keen interest in off-the-beaten-track scuba diving destinations, you might be forgiven for not knowing much about Saudi Arabia’s West Coast. A barely-touched area of rich biodiversity that includes mountains, desert, dormant volcanoes, mangroves and astonishing coral reefs, it’s an environmentalist’s dream ecosystem.  You’d also, unless you’ve been keeping a particularly close eye on developments in Saudi Arabia, be forgiven for not immediately associating the oil-rich sovereign state with sterling eco credentials.

However, one thing that hasn’t escaped many eyes is the stratospheric pace of change afoot in the kingdom, fuelled by its ambitious Vision 2030 program, and one of the cornerstones of this is tourism development. The country expects this sector to account for around 10 percent of its annual GDP by 2030 and a recently announced $4 billion Tourism Development Fund underpins this ambition, injecting cash like rocket fuel into nearly 40 separate developments around the country.

A lynchpin of this vision is slowly rising up out of the earth on Saudi Arabia’s western coastline. The Red Sea Project, led by a specially formed entity called The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC), will encompass around 48 hotels and 8,000 rooms when finished in 2030 – Phase One is set for completion in two years’ time with 16 hotels and 3,100 rooms set to welcome guests to an experience-laden destination unlike any other.

Work is already under way for the project, which was announced at the end of July 2017 and bears the status of ‘gigaproject’, a moniker that may well have been coined specifically to describe a kind of next-level development not previously seen anywhere else. In fact, the first page of an online search of the word brings up several Saudi projects including Amaala  and Neom. Unprecedented new words for unprecedented times and a development that will span more than 28,000 km2 of pristine land and water, encompass an archipelago of more than 90 islands and be built around canyons, ancient heritage sites and important conservation areas.

The first, preparatory phase at the Coastal Village, which will house 14,000 employees, is already underway along with construction of a 3.3km crossing to the main hub on Shurayrah Island. Leading the development is John Pagano, whose 35-plus years of experience includes roles as Managing Director of Canary Wharf Group, President of one of the largest development companies in the Bahamas and head of his own investment company. Pagano, an industry veteran, was in Europe when he was headhunted to the role.

“I had taken a step back from my career when I got a call out of the blue asking if I would come to Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t on my horizon but after I came out and met MBS, I was taken with the vision and the ambition – more so than the development itself – but what got my attention was the chance to be part of something really big,” he tells CEO Middle East from his office in Riyadh during our Zoom interview.

That ‘something big’, The Red Sea Project, seeks not just to redefine the parameters of luxury travel, but, in its way, to play its role in transforming an entire country. His vision for TRSDC stretches beyond the building of The Red Sea Project. “I want it to be a real estate company for the future, for tomorrow’s Saudi employees. We are proud that 50 percent of our staff today are Saudi nationals and that women are increasingly entering the workforce.”

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