By Adam Schupak
I’ve seen the future of golf in Saudi Arabia and it looks a lot like a modern-day, high-end American golf facility on steroids. There is something oddly wrong or charmingly comforting—I still can’t decide—about flying halfway around the world and feeling as though I could be at a Ritz-Carlton in Scottsdale if not for the men in robes and the women wearing full face veils. The clubhouse at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club is as opulent as any I’ve ever entered, a palace of sorts in a land ruled by a king. Managed by Troon Golf, it includes a ballroom, a health club and a spa, not to mention Oryx Club—“a club within a club” that offers its members an exclusive cigar lounge (complete with personal humidors), a billiards lounge, personal dining services, and meeting rooms for business dealings. Lavish doesn’t do it justice.
The 18-hole, par 72 course plays just over 6,900 yards and is the only grass course on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, but it won’t be the last. Golf is a key component in “Vision 2030,” a plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as recreation and tourism. The course was part of the master plan for King Abdullah Economic City developed when the city was first conceived in 2005.
“Vision 2030 is a blueprint for the future of Saudi Arabia, not only economically but also culturally and socially,” says Fahd Al Rasheed, Group CEO and managing director of Emaar the Economic City, the master developer of King Abdullah Economic City. “An important component of Vision 2030 is encouraging a more active lifestyle within the Saudi population.”
Located approximately 100 miles north of Jeddah on the east coast of the Red Sea, Royal Greens is at the heart of the Al Murooj residential district, the largest privately funded new city development in the world and the first dedicated golf community in Saudi Arabia. It is one of 34 facilities under development at an estimated investment of 3 billion Ryal, or nearly $800 million.
Royal Greens is a desert oasis. The par-four 15th hole swings left to a green overlooking the Red Sea and the par-three 16th hugs the coastline to the left and is sure to become the most-talked-about and photographed hole on the course. If not for the oil rigs in the distance, you might think you were in the Bahamas. Royal Greens also benefits from a fully- flood lit back nine for cooler evening play.
Golf has been played in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s, but mostly on sand-based greens commonly called “browns.” The game is set to take off in a big way in the coming years. From Jan. 31 – Feb. 3, the same week as the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, Royal Greens will play host to the European Tour, the first time that an international tournament has been played in the country. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed, former European Ryder Cupper Paul Casey, and European Tour Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn are among the early commitments.
On April 28, 2018 European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley struck a ceremonial first tee shot at Royal Greens and declared, “If I’ve learned nothing else in the last three years on the job, it’s about the golf course, and this is going to be a great course. It’s a natural fit for our strategy for the Middle East.”
As Saudi Arabia undergoes a cultural renaissance, it sees hosting its first professional golf tournament as an opportunity to showcase itself as a business, tourist, and leisure destination that is open to the world. And Royal Greens, designed by Dave Sampson of European Golf Design, is just the start. As many as 13 more golf courses are in the pipeline. Will they be of the “add water, instant golf facility” the way the game developed in China? Several architects and developers are monitoring just how fast golf will grow here. For now, the company line is that the timeline and plans for the construction of new courses is to be determined by the Saudi Golf Federation.
Much like Dubai and other Middle East countries before it, Saudi Arabia finally is embracing the global obsession that is golf. Led by Emaar, the same developers behind Dubai sprouting faster than a Chia Pet, the leadership is making a bold statement that golf can play a role in Saudi Arabia’s transformation.
“It is no accident that golf finds itself as the center of our sports development,” Al Rasheed says. “The game is as highly regarded as any sport and is one that we believe will be perfectly placed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”