Louvre Abu Dhabi architect Jean Nouvel to design Saudi Arabia's Al Ula Resort

The kingdom's newest tourist destination will be home to a nature reserve and a luxury resort

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Go back thousands of years and the north-western Saudi city of Al Ula was an essential stopping point for anyone travelling the Incense Route.

It was an important meeting place for anyone buying or selling spices, silks, incense and more.

The city was also a major metropolis of the Nabataean Empire, second only to its capital Petra, now in modern-day Jordan.

But time changes everything and for hundreds of years, Al Ula has been a ghost town.

That is something that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plans to change.

Speaking on Sunday during the Launching the Vision for Al Ula gathering, he laid the foundation stone for a new development and revealed further plans to responsibly transform the city into a worldwide heritage destination for tourists.

Al Sharaan

At the heart of the project will be Al Sharaan Nature Reserve, a 925-square kilometre space set to make the most of the rocky landscape.

The project will focus on the natural integrity of Al Ula and aims to re-establish the rich diversity of plant life and wildlife that once flourished here.

Inside the reserve, which is named after the surrounding canyon area, a luxury retreat will open in the archaeologically rich surroundings.

Part of the master plan for the destination, it will consist of 25 suites, 10 pavilions and five resort-style residential estates, with completion expected in 2023.

There will also be 40 additional residential estates, as well as an international summit centre, restaurants and a luxury spa.

French architect Jean Nouvel will design the project and plans to draw inspiration from the surrounding landscapes of Al Ula as one of the main considerations for the resort.

"The location is rooted in history, it is rooted in the history of the land, the history of the Nabateans," he said.

"To be able to frame the Sharaan landscape at different heights is amazing, discovering the distant horizons, discovering the different qualities of light.

"It will also mean inventing, based on the irregularities of nature and geography. Architecture helps in this. Art helps. We should see what is built here as art.”

This type of landscape-incorporating design is something that Nouvel has a wealth of experience of. In Italy, he created Rome’s Fondazione Alda Fendi Esperimenti, a structure that stands on the site of the Roman Forum.

For his work in Abu Dhabi, the Pritzker-winning architect was inspired by the focal point of an ancient Arabian city. Taking the idea of a medina, he designed a mammoth protective dome that shields Louvre Abu Dhabi from the desert sun during the day, and reflects the night sky by evening.

Similarly, the Al Sharaan resort will seek to blend heritage and modernity, fusing ancient lands with the latest amenities.

Construction is expected to begin early next year, with a completion date set for 2030. Community involvement in the project will be important and 2,500 local people will be trained in a project entitled Hammayah.

These residents will act as ambassadors for Al Ula's natural and human heritage.


As part of the development, the Crown Prince also announced the establishment of a Global Fund for the Arabian leopard. The animal has been listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list since 2008 and less than 200 are thought to be alive. This fund looks to establish the Al Sharaan nature reserve as a site where the creatures can be released and reintroduced to Saudi Arabia.