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AlUla, the priceless jewel that Saudi Arabia polishes

With the opening of Saudi Arabia to tourism, AlUla became one of the kingdom's main attractions. As a natural, architectural and archaeological treasure, the region has become the flagship of the country's tourism policy and tourism is an economic and social catalyst for a long forgotten district.

It is the jewel on which Saudi Arabia relies on in the margins of its opening to tourism. This jewel is AlUla, an oasis in the province of Madinah in the northwest of the kingdom. 22,561 km² of sand dunes, dotted with palm trees, mountains, and rocks. A dream playground for lovers of desert raids. A haven of peace for those who love wild landscapes.

“Wonder of Arabia”

“It is a place that is extremely mineral, with lava flowing everywhere, it was more beautiful than I imagined”. Yann Artus-Bertrand flew over the region a few months ago to shoot images commissioned by the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU), the organization responsible for promoting the oasis. His videos are now on display at the Arab World Institute in Paris as part of the exhibition “AlUla, Wonder of Arabi”, launched to promote the region. “What interested me most of all was all that extraordinary green between the rocks,” adds the director.

In this set of green, rocks and sand, AlUla conceals other treasures, archaeological ones. Mada’in Saleh is probably the most amazing one. A former Nabataean city, the city covers some 52 hectares and contains several remains and more than a hundred tombs dating from the 4th century BC. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is now at the center of one of the most ambitious tourism development projects in the region.

France at the wheel

A project for which France took the lead alongside Saudi Arabia in April 2018. “We are in the process of co-constructing various projects with them (the RCU), in all fields,” insists Jean-François Charnier, Scientific Director of the French Agency for AlUla (Af-Alula), the French government institution responsible for supporting the RCU in the development of tourism in AlUla. “In the cultural field, for example, we have begun to define together important archaeological missions to write the history of AlUla, but also an ambitious museum program called Constellations with six stars, six museums that will be in the AlUla landscape.”

The French contribution is not limited to archaeology. Af-Alula also works on agriculture, urban planning and the region’s cultural agenda with “initiatives in the field of contemporary art, artist residencies, galleries with an innovative exhibition program and also, certainly, commissions from major international artists”, as Jean-François Charnier points out.

A unique tourist destination

An invaluable civilizational heritage, an idyllic setting… All this in a country that is barely opening up to non-religious tourism. The region seems to be the new flagship destination of the Middle East. Gérard Mestrallet, former President of Engie and now CEO of Af-AlUla, is convinced of this: “AlUla has a truly unique potential as a tourist destination.

Beyond the financial manna represented by the expected tourist flow for a Saudi state in search of economic diversification, the development of AlUla is also a godsend for a region long forgotten. The employment and training of local people, particularly in the tourism sector, is one of the main areas of focus for the RCU. “We have 500 locals that have been sent around the world with scholarships, we have 2500 hamayas, local citizens that are part of a nature conservation program, farmers are opening their houses to turn them into Airbnb farms,” says Amr AlMadani, RCU CEO. According to figures obtained by Arab News, the AlUla district now has an unemployment rate of -2%, reflecting a labor shortage. In short, AlUla is more likely to become a success story.