Kiran Haslam

Chief Marketing Officer
"Great leaders are open to change and also maintain belief when others do not."
Kiran Jay Haslam is CMO of Diriyah Gate Development Authority, a prestigious project in the heart of Saudi Arabia. We asked Kiran how he and his team of 150 marketers can live up to the massive ambitions, and what is the role of marketing in this visionary journey?

Diryah is a historic location in the heart of Saudi Arabia, close to modern day Riyadh. Around the year 400, a tribe set up a societal structure around the oasis here. Over time, it became a location for agriculture and wealth, and an incredible seat of intelligentsia. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that constitutes an area of 14 square kilometres.
What makes Diriyah so special?
‘As the birthplace of Saudi Arabia, Diryah will eventually shatter the misconceptions of people's understanding of the kingdom. We're creating an entirely pedestrian urban city of the future in and around our UNESCO World Heritage site, celebrating what Diriyah was hundreds of years ago, and looking at what we can learn from it today. It's got a subterranean complex infrastructure underground, that includes metro stations, delivery mechanisms, waste management services, car parks. We’re looking at how you would create life in and around nature and this incredible historic architecture, and how would you live in a pedestrian and urban environment.’

How much of the project is completed?
‘We hope to complete the first phase by 2027. I'd say that we're probably about 30 percent there now. We're moving at considerable pace. We're just about to open our first luxury collection hotel, the Bab Samhan, as well as our exhibition museum space museum, Diriyah Art Futures. You can visit Diriyah right now, walk through the UNESCO site, go to great restaurants and come to our experience centres. As of next year, you'll be able to book your hotel.’
Is it truly necessary to spend USD 63 billion on this project?
‘It is. An area of 14 square kilometres is 6.5 times the size of Monaco. Fundamentally, what we're doing took Singapore 60 years, and it took Dubai 30 years. We're trying to do this in seven years. But it's not just the ambition, it's also the complexity and how we're trying to bring it back to life. All of that money goes into technology and smart city integration, such as reutilization of water resources. At the moment, we have replanted 6.5 million plants and varietals to repopulate 2.6 square kilometres of natural parkland.’
Why did the government hire you for the marketing and what is your objective?
‘I'm probably one of the most enthusiastic for what this project does. When I first visited the country, about 20 years ago, it was a very different Saudi Arabia. Under the vision and leadership of his royal highness, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, this has changed radically. In the past, it was a very rigid, internalized society. But ironically, Saudi Arabians love to externalize their life. A big part of our project is unlocking that quality of life, that public realm, showing them: you don't need to travel to have that life, you can have it here in Diriyah. I live and breathe that idea.’
How do you convince foreign tourists with preconceptions to travel to Saudi Arabia?
‘Saudis are a very kind and generous people. They feel misunderstood. For many generations, there was a stigma about telling someone you're Saudi because of how Western media particularly depicted them. It is a huge task, but when you're not making stuff up, and when you're using literal examples and reference points, it's a lot easier to digest. A lot of marketing professionals are constantly trying to create the next angle which draws someone in. I'm very lucky because I don't have to reinvent anything. I just have to basically open the door and say: have a look, tell us what you think. What struck me most, is that it’s an unbelievably aligned and optimistic country. Overwhelmingly, people there feel like tomorrow is going to be a better day. That's a really remarkable thing.’

Tell us more about the changes in Saudi society.
‘Sure. For instance, why have we got Cristiano Ronaldo here? The real reason is because Saudis had to travel to Europe to see their favourite football stars. As with the Diriyah project, with its public realm and quality of life, we're now doing it here for a local population. A lot of people call it sportswashing, but it doesn't even come across anyone's radar to try to impress the rest of the world. Right now, 60 percent of the population is below the age of 34. A tidal wave of change is about to sweep through the country, and these sub-34-year-olds are unbelievably bright, motivated, and passionate.’
Are they your target market?
‘Totally. And they are my marketing team. Because they are the largest section of society here, and they are smart because they've all studied. They're engaged. They can see that they have a part to play in the future of the kingdom. There are so many incredible projects that are looking to deliver a unique, new quality of life experience. And they all want to jump on board.’
You're leading a marketing team of 150 people. Does visionary leadership depend on the context you operate in? Or do you believe in a sort of fixed playbook for leaders?
‘There's no fixed playbook. A leader has to be open to change. I try to challenge myself on a daily basis to do that. Great leaders just listen and will admit when there’s a better way to go. It’s equally important to have an understanding, a belief, even if others don't have it. Steve Jobs would never have made the iPod if he had listened to a big consultancy firm. They would've told him it was the silliest thing to do, and benchmarking would've proven it to be wrong.’

What principles or rules do you live by in marketing?
‘I have one rule: I never ever take myself seriously, but I always take everybody I meet and my interactions with the world very seriously. That opens me up to change. And that's also what has probably led me to be an eco-warrior and a staunch vegan. I care for things. If I see a pigeon lying on the road, I'll stop my car and pick it up.
Right. That's just in me. It's always been in me. But I'm always not taking myself seriously.’
Do you have any role models?
Muhammad Ali, with his way of using his position to try to change the world for the better. The other big person in my life, as a musician, was Frank Zappa. He had a wonderful capacity and a wonderful mind for music, and he brought amazing people together. Maybe they couldn't see what he saw, or put the dots on paper like he did, but they could definitely help him unlock that. Another big influence was the author and anthropologist Joseph Campbell. He helped me to look at theology and mythology from all across the world, and look deeper at the lessons from those stories. That probably helped me the most from a marketing standpoint, because if there's one sort of aggro, it's when agencies pile into my office and always start off with brand archetypes. Upon which I always ask: have you read Carl Jung's Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious? If you haven't, do not present marketing archetypes to me because it goes so much deeper than just labels. It goes into human motivation and why we choose to do the things we choose, not what we can call people who do stereotypical things.’

Which role does marketing play in the Diriyah project?
‘It plays an interrogative role. It's constantly asking: Why? Marketing is looking at the master plan on a daily basis. It's looking at concept even before it starts to go to bricks and mortar and delivery. Marketing is looking at the operation after it's delivered, and at the customer journey. It’s is looking at the digital interface and technology in the entire interactive space. It's looking at branding, and not just on a couple of brands. We're branding everything; from an opera house to an entire cultural district.’

So, marketing works very much in partnership with engineers and investors. It’s telling the story as well as selling it…
‘Absolutely. I'm interacting with Saudi Green Initiative, looking at smart city integration and technology, and with some of the best and brightest minds who are challenging the way in which we live in the future.’
As the CMO for one of the most prosperous countries in the Middle East, is money a big success factor in fulfilling your visionary goals? Do the Saudis need to earn their money back, or is it a prestige project?
‘It's a mixture of both. Our chairman is a royal highness and he's a visionary with an incredible intellect and work ethic. He will always challenge us to create the best that it can be. But it's not a bottomless pit, it's a very carefully crafted investment. It's also designed to deliver on rediverting a GDP stream; away from the traditional heavy reliance on oil and gas, and toward tourism and travel. That in itself is one of the most remarkable sustainability initiatives in the world.’

Would you consider Dubai or Qatar as big competitors for Diriyah in the tourist industry?
‘Not at all. If anything, they complement each other. If you come to Diriyah, you'll notice it’s on a human scale. You will not find a skyscraper. Looking from Diriyah onto Riyadh, it's almost like being in Greenwich Village, looking onto New York City. We will never feel like Dubai, Qatar or Abu Dhabi.’
Are you looking to attract mainly luxury tourism?
‘We're going to attract everybody, but there are elements in our master plan that are definitely oriented towards a wealthy bracket. For example, we have over 20,000 residential properties, and they are definitely priced in the luxury end of the market. It'll be the same with our commercial properties.’
What would make marketers more visionary?
‘They could approach their job through the eyes of an anthropologist. The study of humanity is more important than studying any single task in a marketing textbook. Understanding what humanity is, what it can be, where the societal spirit originates; these are really important things. Understanding mythologies, archetypes, and commonalities, that's what joins us all. If you can tap into that as a marketer, you've tapped into the greatest goldmine that ever existed.’

Finally, what do you do when you want to be creative?
‘I grab my guitar and I play stuff that I don't know, the unexpected stuff. I do that when I start to think about ideas. I'm very visual, so I like to put ideas down as sketches and then I think about them and then I challenge those sketches. I also steal. Not literally, I don't plagiarize. But I might watch a Wes Anderson film and think: why was that dialogue with Bill Murray phrased that way? And is there a way that I can phrase it that way? Being creative is an absolute challenge, I struggle with it on a daily basis. Maybe eventually I'll learn how to do a better job before they bury me. Sting, the great artist, said that being laconic is probably one of the most powerful tools. What he says in four lines, it takes me six paragraphs to do.’
About Kiran Jay Haslam
Kiran has over 20 years of experience in marketing and has worked with some of the world's most esteemed brands, including Princess Yachts and Bentley Motors. Kiran is not only a talented marketing executive, but he’s also an accomplished guitarist, composer, and author.

About Diriyah Gate Development Authority
The Diryah Giga Project is a prestigious development plan in the middle of the Saudi desert. It was launched by the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, with a USD 63.2 billion public investment fund. The UNESCO world heritage site aims to attract 100 million tourists by 2030.
Privacy statement
Powered by

Good to have you here!

CMOtalk uses cookies. We use them for keeping track of statistics, so we can serve a good website. By clicking 'continue', you are accepting our privacy statement.