Saudi Arabia is giving its capital a $23 billion makeover

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Saudi Arabia will be pumping $23 billion into a massive beautification project for its capital Riyadh, its government has announced. The plan, which will incorporate green space, recreational areas and more than 1,000 art installations, seeks to improve quality of life for the capital’s 5 million residents and prepare the country for the opening up of its tourism sector.

“In Vision 2030 and in the Crown Prince’s dynamic vision, tourism is next, because it’s a tremendous generator of jobs,” Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of Diriyah Gate Development Authority, told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Tuesday.

Inzerillo is tasked with overseeing the restoration of the historic town of Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi Royal family and a UNESCO heritage site. Positioned on the outskirts of Riyadh, Diriyah will be the site of a 23 million square foot giga-project encompassing new museums, restaurants, entertainment venues and high-end retail that will invite numerous major international brands into the country.

“Every million people that come, 119,000 new jobs. We will attract 7 million people here by 2023,” Inzerillo said. “We’re on a very fast track.”

Tourism, however, may be a gamble as the kingdom faces geopolitical headwinds spurred by domestic and foreign policies. Saudi Arabia still bears the reputational consequences of the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA concludes took place at the direction of the Crown Prince, a charge the royal family fiercely denies.

And despite lifting a driving ban on women, Saudi Arabia is still well known for its poor record on women’s rights and is criticized abroad for harsh crackdowns on dissent. Ten female driving activists were put on trial last week after months of allegations that they were tortured while in prison.

Winning foreign investment for tourism developments is key for the kingdom as it tries to refocus its image and move on from the Khashoggi fallout, as well as maintain a high living standard for Saudis as oil prices come down.

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