Saudi Arabia’s crown prince launches mega tourism projects in ancient city of Al-Ula
AL-ULA, Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman launched on Sunday mega tourism projects in the ancient city of Al-Ula, that includes a resort designed by a renowned French architect and a nature reserve, both called Sharaan.
Jean Nouvel, the French architect who designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, will build a resort in the mountains of Al-Ula as part of a plan launched on Sunday night to transform the home of ancient civilizations into a destination for visitors from around the world.
The plan for sustainable development of the region, which includes the Sharaan Resort and a designated nature reserve, was launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Al-Ula’s governor, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, at a groundbreaking ceremony at Maraya. The mirrored concert hall was built for the Winter at Tantora festival, which has brought visitors to the untouched area every weekend since December, giving them a taste of what’s to come.
Several hundred guests were welcomed in the bukhoor-scented concert hall, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, Princess Reema bint Bandar and Yanni, who performed at the Winter at Tantora festival last weekend.
#LIVE: Greek composer @Yanni say he is delighted to be in the ancient city of #AlUla and see the natural beauty of the desert, which he described as a unique experience for a “Greek boy” #رؤية_العلاhttps://t.co/pDiMnQ3CmR pic.twitter.com/yNltftMe5B
— Arab News (@arabnews) February 10, 2019
The charter for Al-Ula was presented on a stage made of sand, with a multimedia sound and light show involving local men and women, the “guardians” of Al-Ula. The actual rocks of Al-Ula, visible through glass at the back of the stage, served as the backdrop.
“The decision to build in this place is brave and will allow Sharaan to be revealed on a world-wide scale,” Nouvel said in a statement.
Al-Ula is home to spectacular sandstone rock formations and the archaeological site of Madain Saleh, the largest Nabatean settlement south of Petra that contains the ancient civilization’s rock tombs with their carved facades. In 2008, it was designated as Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage site.
The Sharaan Resort will include residential estates, a summit center, a spa and restaurants. It will be accompanied by the 925-square-kilometer Sharaan Nature Reserve. Both take their names from the surrounding canyon with its ancient rock formations. The reserve will conserve and restore the region’s natural desert habitats, including the Arabian leopard, with the help of local rangers trained by international experts.
While the details of the plan are new, it is very much in keeping with the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030, which aims to develop the Kingdom’s tourism sector and provide the younger generation with the skills that they need for the future as it diversifies the economy away from its dependence on oil. The vision also pledges to celebrate the country’s national identity by preserving its cultural sites, making them accessible and building world-class museums to “create a living witness to our ancient heritage.”
The Royal Commission for Al-Ula was created for this purpose in 2017, and the French Agency for Al-Ula Development was established last July, after Paris and Saudi Arabia signed a bilateral agreement during the Crown Prince’s visit in April last year.
The commission aims, by 2035, to attract 2 million visitors to the area, creating 38,000 jobs and generating SR120 billion ($32 billion).
The commission has already launched a scholarship program to train Saudi students in the US, the UK and France in the fields of tourism and archaeology; this year, it will add architecture and environmental planning to the mix. The Hammayah program will also provide up to 2,500 opportunities for local men and women to get involved in a community effort to preserve the wonders of Al-Ula.
There are only so many architects in the world who have the power to draw visitors on the strength of the building alone, and Nouvel is one. Just ask anyone who has stood under Louvre Abu Dhabi’s 7,500-ton geometric canopy, inspired by a grove of palm trees and designed to cast dappled light onto the water and walkways below, in what he called the Rain of Light.
Nouvel’s architecture is rooted in the local context, and so with the Al-Ula resort, he will take inspiration from the surrounding rocks. “In the thickness of the rock, everything is possible, everything is stable and protected, as if weightless,” Nouvel explained. “Rock is an absolutely fantastic material because of its inertia. To put yourself in rock is to protect yourself. To protect yourself from extreme temperatures, to protect yourself security-wise. We’ve chosen to live in these rocks one more. To be able to frame the Sharaan landscape at different heights is amazing, discovering the distant horizons, discovering the different qualities of light, and all this in total thermal comfort.”
There is already a link between Nouvel and Al-Ula: A number of ancient treasures from the area are now on display as part of the Roads of Arabia exhibit in Louvre Abu Dhabi. But the Sharaan Resort, which is scheduled for completion in 2023, is a link that is even closer to home.