The King Abdullah Financial District Development & Management Company CEO is creating a destination
Gautam Sashittal has been the CEO of the King Abdullah Financial District Development & Management Company (KAFD DMC) since 2021, where he has been transforming the area into a business and lifestyle destination with state-of-the-art physical and digital infrastructure. We met with him at the Future Hospitality Summit (FHS), held in Saudi Arabia from 7 to 9 May 2023, to find out about developing KAFD and the plans still in the pipeline.
Connecting Travel: For readers outside of Saudi, can you tell us about the King Abdullah Financial District development?
Gautam Sashittal: One of the first initiatives of Vision 2030 to be operational and flourishing, KAFD symbolises the new Riyadh and the future of city living as a sustainable business district that is transforming the way we live, work, learn and play. We are home to government entities, international businesses, fintechs and a growing startup community, representing the face of the Kingdom’s evolving marketplace.
Our 95 buildings, designed by 25 world-leading architectural firms, have reshaped the skyline of Riyadh. The district is still evolving, however, as new areas will be designed and built in the future to provide more residential and lifestyle options for our residents and tenants.
As a business district that is expanding its size and service provision, our international tenants include the likes of Deloitte, BUPA and Pfizer Saudi.
CT: What are your key goals in 2023?
GS: Our goals this year are to plan and design the unbuilt areas of the district, which will house more hotels and new branded residences, while also completing renovation works on some of our buildings, and enhancing our smart city solutions and district mobility.
CT: What key messages did you deliver at FHS?
GS: Initially developed as a business district, today KAFD is a vibrant mixed-use district – with offices, homes, retail outlets, hospitality and entertainment venues – offering a wide range of experiences across its area of 1.6 million square metres. It's the first development in the kingdom and the largest development globally to achieve LEED Platinum certification, the highest accreditation from USGBC (US Green Building Council), which recognises KAFD as a global leader in sustainability.
We have over 900,000 square metres of Grade A office spaces, but we are opening a range of luxury hotels, including the first Equinox Hotel in the kingdom, and the first Kimpton Hotel in the Middle East.
In the coming years, Riyadh residents will see us developing further areas and the KAFD district and community will only grow. In the new developments, there will be more residential and hospitality offerings as well as unique entertainment and sporting venues. In fact, we plan to open 10 hotels in KAFD in the long run with more than 6000 rooms and branded residences, supporting the growth in tourism and business travellers to the city.
CT: What's inspiring this growth?
GS: Our growth is part of the wider transformation of Saudi Arabia, catering to a growing market and tourism interest. Today, global foreign direct investment (FDI) flows have surpassed their pre-Covid-19 levels. The same trend can be seen in Saudi Arabia. In 2021, FDI inflows more than tripled into the Kingdom, reaching US$19 billion from US$5.3 billion in 2020.
With approximately 70% of its local population under the age of 35, KSA sits at the heart of the Middle East, a region with a population of 411 million people. The kingdom aims to attract 100 million domestic and international visits a year by 2030 making it one of the world’s most visited destinations.
At the same time, Saudi is pursuing an aggressive financial sector development programme. In 2021, the number of fintech companies licensed by the Saudi Central Bank reached 18 and cashless payments exceeded cash transactions for the first time in Saudi Arabia, reaching 57%.
Within these parameters, KAFD aims to develop the ecosystem for private sector growth, attracting investors and international tenants while partnering with leading global operators, and innovative developers to expand the district’s services and venues as the region’s most sought-after business and lifestyle hub.
CT: What are the greatest challenges facing investors in the Middle East?
GS: I would say that the greatest challenge facing investors is access to reliable information, and for this purpose, it’s important to visit the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular. Whereas in the past, it could take a minimum of two weeks to open a new business in the kingdom, now it only takes 30 minutes and only 180 seconds to secure a commercial registration. In fact, more than 750 economic reforms have been implemented to improve Saudi Arabia’s business environment, including strengthening minority investors protection and easing trade across borders.
It is an exciting and important time to be here. Since 2016, non-oil government revenue and the number of SMEs have more than doubled. Saudi Arabia was the fastest-growing economy in the G20 in 2022. In fact, in 2022, GDP grew by 8.7%, signalling strong and sustained economic growth.
In relation to the hospitality industry, it’s important to note that Saudi Arabia rose 10 places in WEF’s Travel and Tourism Development Index, ranking best in the world for managing demand pressure and impact.
The climate for business is thriving, and KAFD is certainly one example of this growth, providing the ecosystem for business success and a holistic, smart district catering to the needs of an exclusive clientele seeking luxury and futuristic urban living experiences.
For more information on the next Future Hospitality Summit, visit www.futurehospitalitysummit.com/ae