France and Saudi Arabia reveal details of their partnership for Al Ula development

Plans include archaeological museums, contemporary art commissions and a 120km racecourse for horses

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France and Saudi Arabia have revealed details of their partnership to develop Al Ula in the north-west of the kingdom, an area of archaeological significance that could be a major boon for tourism.

The project will take place in three phases, with the first being completed in 2023 at a projected cost of between $3 billion and $4bn (Dh11bn and 14.7bn).

The total development is scheduled to be finished in 2035 at a cost of between $19bn and $25bn, said Amr Al Madani, chief executive of the Saudi Royal Commission.

The partnership is the latest cultural collaboration between the French and a Gulf state. Saudi's Royal Commission for Al Ula is working alongside the French government agency, Af-Alula.

The ambitious programme has already started with archaeological digs. Al Ula, with a natural oasis, has been an important crossing point on the Arabian Peninsula for the past 7,000 years, from the Bronze Age.

It was on the trade routes for incense and the pilgrimage routes to Makkah and Madinah, and was connected on a railway line built by the Ottomans.

The most famous of the civilisations in Al Ula are the Nabateans, who carved tombs with astonishing stepped friezes and eagle statues into the sandstone rocks.

Almost 100 tombs there rival those of Petra, the northern Nabatean city in Jordan.

“This is a site unique in the world,” says Jack Lang, director of the Institut du Monde Arabe. “It contains a beauty that is stupefying and unforgettable.”

The collaboration between Saudi Arabia and France was first announced in April, 2018, but today's announcement highlighted Al Ula's manifesto - a document that outlines their commitment to safeguard the natural and cultural landscape.

Today also marked the opening of Institut du Monde Arabe's exhibition on Al Ula.

The 400 Saudis and 30 French, led by Gerard Mestrallet, will work closely together.

The plan calls for Al Ula to become an open-air museum, with cultural sites, museums and wildlife reserves.

It covers 22,561 square kilometres and includes the sandstone tombs and the old town of Hegra, also known as Madain Saleh.

“At first the idea was an archaeological museum right near the entrance, but then we thought, that’s really been done," says Kate Hall-Tipping, head of heritage, arts, and culture at the Royal Commission.

"So we started to think about the whole site being a museum, where people can learn about the different cultures as they are exploring outside.

“That will involve a number of different transport ideas. It’s quite fundamental to get people out of their cars and experiencing the site.”

Projects include the Life and Memory Galleries, to be opened in Hegra, for which the Royal Commission is already collecting oral testimonies from local inhabitants.

A Hegra Museum will tell the story of Nabateans who established Al Ula as their principal southern city, and guided tours will lead people through the tombs.

Contemporary art will be a key feature, with a cultural quarter in Hegra city for local artists and artisans, and museums.

The Black Basalt Museum, for instance, will explore the volcanic earth and the colour black in contemporary works by artists such as Anish Kapoor, says Jean-Francois Charnier, a scientific director on the French agency.

Wadi Al Fann, or the Valley of the Arts, will house commissions done in collaboration with Desert X in Los Angeles.

Led by the British curator Neville Wakefield, Desert X is known for its biennials in the Californian desert, and will host new commissions in Al Ula from January to March next year.

Hall-Tipping says other art offerings are “still evolving”.

“If you’re telling the story of things that were there, of vanished kingdoms that nobody has ever heard about, you start making plans in a much more classical way,” she says.

“But when you pick up the remit of art, it’s a new layer of expression. How do you do that sensitively and in a way that reflects the area?"

Al Madani says emphasis will be placed on sustainable tourism – not surprising, given the incredibly well-preserved state of the area.

Visitor numbers will be limited and the project also includes the Sharaan wildlife reserve, for which the French architect Jean Nouvel, designer of Louvre Abu Dhabi, will create an ecotourism lodge.

The reserve has already claimed a victory with twin Arabian leopards born. There are only between 50 and 100 living in the wild.

Other tourist attractions include hot-air ballooning and a 120km racecourse for horses.

Locals long stayed away from Al Ula, out of lack of interest and respect for the tombs. But when the Saudi Royal Commission was announced two years ago, the site began to attract curiosity.

"People started coming but there was no control, no conservation, so suddenly things were at risk," Hall-Tipping says.

The commission closed the core heritage site and will reopen it in October 2020 with controlled access.

Events that have already begun at Al Ula, such as the Winter at Tantora music festival that this year incudes Lionel Richie and Yanni, will continue.

"But you won't be able to go dune-bashing any more," Hall-Tipping says.