Inside Saudi Arabia’s royal palaces being transformed into luxury tourism hotspots

PIF-owned hospitality company, the Boutique Group, is working to develop significant cultural and historical palaces across Saudi Arabia, to transform them into ultra-luxury boutique hotels.

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Royal palaces across Saudi Arabia – including the former residence of King Saud bin Abdulaziz and ones that have hosted international figures like former US President Richard Nixon and the late Princess Diana – are undergoing a renovation and restoration project to preserve the historical sites and transform them into luxury tourism destinations.

PIF-owned hospitality company, the Boutique Group, is transforming several cultural and historical palaces across Saudi Arabia into ultra-luxury boutique hotels as part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious tourism plans under Vision 2030.

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A rendering of the Tuwaiq Palace in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
A rendering of the Tuwaiq Palace in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

Three palaces, including the Red Palace and Tuwaiq Palace in Riyadh, and al-Hamra Palace in Jeddah, are currently being developed, with several others under consideration, according to Boutique Group’s CEO Mark De Cocinis.

“Each of these properties offers a unique window into Saudi Arabia’s vast culture and heritage and the diversity of the regions they each call home,” De Cocinis told Al Arabiya English.

Three palaces undergoing renovation

A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

Al Hamra Palace, located along Jeddah’s iconic corniche and dates back to the late 1960s, was originally built as a royal residence for King Faisal bin Abdulaziz. However, upon its completion, the ruler instead chose to turn it into a place of hospitality for “Jeddah’s honored guests,” De Cocinis said.

Over the years, it hosted various presidents of Arab and Islamic nations to international figures, including Richard Nixon, former French President Jacques Chirac, Princess Diana and King Charles III of the United Kingdom.

Tuwaiq Palace, overlooking Wadi Hanifa, is located in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarters.

Designed by Atelier Frei Otto in collaboration with Buro Huppold and Omrania, it opened its doors in 1985 and received the 1998 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

“One of Riyadh’s most cherished architectural landmarks, the design incorporates elements of the iconic desert fortress and the Bedouin tent, with influences from the traditional aesthetics from the central Najd region,” according to De Cocinis.

The Red Palace in Riyadh was built in 1943 by Saudi Arabia’s founding father King Abdulaziz for his son, Crown Prince Saud. Constructed shortly after the discovery of oil in the Kingdom, the Red Palace was the first concrete building in Riyadh, characterized by Art Deco design motifs.

The ‘royal treatment’

The balcony view from Al Hamra Palace, showcasing palm trees and a mosque, adorned with an ornate dome and minaret. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
The balcony view from Al Hamra Palace, showcasing palm trees and a mosque, adorned with an ornate dome and minaret. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

According to De Cocinis, the Boutique Group seeks to enrich the Kingdom’s cultural sector while also contributing to the growth of the country’s tourism industry and the wider economy.

Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is experiencing significant growth, with the Kingdom having surpassed its vision 2030 goal of 100 million visitors seven years early.

“By redeveloping these remarkable palaces into ultra-luxury hotels, we are breathing new life into them, making them accessible to a new generation of discerning travelers, and offering a window into Saudi Arabia’s remarkable culture,” the CEO told Al Arabiya English.

“For years, Saudi Arabia has been renowned across the world for its remarkable tradition of hospitality. This is something that lives and breathes throughout every corner of our offerings, and sets us apart from other operators in the ultra-luxury sector.”

Guests receive the Saudi “royal” experience from the moment of their arrival as they’re welcomed by guard “dressed in immaculate regional attire,” De Cocinis said.

“From here, every step of the journey is punctuated with moments of Saudi culture and heritage.”
The CEO described a wellness offer that includes Saudi traditional healing methods, “a pioneering integration that has never been brought to the world in an ultra-luxury setting.”

Each palace also features a “Saudi Celebrity Chef” restaurant, with recipes carefully vetted by the Culinary Commission.

These restaurants will draw on the culinary influences of their respective regions; prepared with ingredients produced in those regions, by chefs from those regions.

“We will also have a Michelin restaurant in each hotel, where up-and-coming Saudi talent can learn from global masters,” added De Cocinis. “One of our bespoke experiences at the Red Palace in Riyadh is the Royal Motorcade Cultural Tour, where visitors can travel in a classic vintage car inspired by King Saud’s fleet, throughout various cultural sites relevant to his life.”

Michelin dining, spas and 5 star luxury

A rendering of the Tuwaiq Palace in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
A rendering of the Tuwaiq Palace in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

Of course, said De Cocinis, adapting historical and cultural landmarks into contemporary hotels, complete with spas, fine dining and ultra-luxury hotel rooms, presents a “real challenge.”

“How do we ensure we integrate best-in-class offerings while also remaining authentic to the buildings as they were originally conceived?” he said. “Throughout everything we do, we are dedicated to preserving the cultural integrity of each property.”

“That means, whatever we add – whether it’s a holistic spa, or a Michelin restaurant – it has to be in keeping with the spirit and aesthetic of the buildings as they initially envisioned.”

With this in mind, the Boutiqueb Group works closely with the Saudi Ministry of Culture and has a culture and heritage team dedicated to helping preserve elements of tradition and history, according to De Cocinis.

“In fact, the Minister of Culture, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud is the Chairman of the Boutique Group Board – and we are in the process of forming an unprecedented Historical Expert Committee to help us maintain the utmost accuracy and authenticity,” said De Cocinis.

The historic Al Hamra Palace in Jeddah. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
The historic Al Hamra Palace in Jeddah. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

Mixing culture with modernity

Giving the example of Al Hamra palace, De Cocinis pointed out that the former royal residence is characterized by a “fascinating range of architectural inspirations, bringing together Hijazi traditions with Neo-classical elements.”

“These influences have produced the building’s distinct slanted roofs, arched gateways, and a facade forged and crafted from Riyadh stone,” he said. “For the redevelopment, Boutique Group partnered with a design consortium that includes the world-renowned French interior designer Jacques Garcia. We are also collaborating with local artists and craftsmen to bring the period’s interiors to life.”

For the Red Palace in Riyadh, the Boutique Group developed an interior collection, focused on a number of traditional local crafts such as hammered brass, leather, and woodworking.

The group is also working with acclaimed French interior architect, Tristan Auer, and the award-winning international firm Aedas to design the Red Palace.

“This collaboration accentuates the original Red Palace interiors and architectural Art-deco elements, as well as King Saud’s appreciation for the Taif Rose. This was seen as a symbol of elegance, which we have incorporated throughout the property.”

A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

All of the group’s palaces will feature a resident historian to explain the history of each property to guests and share stories.

“There is a level of craftsmanship and attention to detail you find throughout our palaces that simply can’t be replicated. Each property represents a unique moment in time, and a milestone of Saudi Arabia’s journey into modernity. They reflect a Kingdom reaching out to embrace the world, while also inviting visitors from abroad.”

Saudi tourism sector under Vision 2030

A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

De Cocinis said the tourism sector plays a critical role in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing journey under Vision 2030 to diversify its economy.

The Ministry of Tourism is expecting $6 trillion of investment opportunities in the travel and tourism sector through to 2030, accompanied by an influx of 320,000 new hotel rooms.

“Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism is also working tirelessly to support job creation and talent development in this dynamic sector,” the CEO said. “We are collaborating with the Ministry to develop our pool of human capital, highlighting our efforts to not just hire local talent, but educate and train them to the highest international standards, in line with the goals of Vision 2030.”

“Meanwhile, our talent benefit from our partnerships with leading regional and international hospitality education and training companies.”

Graceful Saudi palm trees lead guests to the grand entrance of Al Hamra Palace, where history and luxury await. (Supplied)
Graceful Saudi palm trees lead guests to the grand entrance of Al Hamra Palace, where history and luxury await. (Supplied)

Sustainability and technology

At the heart of the restoration project will be both sustainability and technology, said De Cocinis.

“Sustainability is a growing concern for the tourism sectors, and leading luxury hotels are beginning to respond by implementing eco-friendly practices such as reducing waste, conserving water and using renewable energy sources. However, many have been too slow to adopt such measures,” he told Al Arabiya English.

“Boutique Group has developed a comprehensive ESG framework that incorporates operations across our properties and offices, with a view to achieving LEED Gold status for all Boutique Group hotels.”

A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)
A rendering of the Red Palace in Riyadh. (Supplied: The Boutique Group)

Innovation is also crucial, he said.

“In this digital age, technological innovation plays a huge role in elevating guest experiences and empowering our ability to preserve cultural heritage. However, while technology can be a powerful tool, our unique challenge is balancing the adoption of the latest technology, without compromising the integrity of our palaces, or interrupting guest immersion.”

Behind the scenes, AI and other emerging technologies are helping to support responsible luxury efforts, explained De Cocinis.

“The data we’re collecting will help to streamline and enhance our ESG progress, and our customer journey alike. We are also exploring ways to utilize technology to help us to better understand and pre-empt our customers’ preferences and desires.”

As Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector continues to grow, the sky is the limit, said De Cocinis.

“There is so much interest and attention on this country at the moment, with groundbreaking and awe-inspiring projects being implemented all across the nation. As investment and interest pour in, the country’s ultra-luxury sector continues to grow exponentially,” the CEO said.

“I believe we will not just raise the bar for ultra-luxury hospitality in the Kingdom, but the world. We want to show everyone the depths of Saudi hospitality, and what can be achieved when old-world charm meets contemporary excellence.”

Completion dates for these luxury hotels have not yet been confirmed.

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