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Nestled in the vast expanses of North-West Saudi Arabia, AlUla is emerging as a thriving cultural and historical destination, guided by the vision of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). Since its establishment by royal decree in July 2017, the commission has embarked on a mission to sensitively and sustainably develop the region, unveiling AlUla’s rich heritage to a global audience of cultural tourists. This initiative is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030, aiming to transform AlUla into a key cultural and tourism hub.

With a civilization history spanning over 7,000 years, AlUla’s landscape is a testament to human ingenuity and resilience. Central to the RCU’s mission is preserving and celebrating AlUla’s archaeological sites, including Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site, known for its 94 intricately carved tombs and ancient petroglyphs, underscores the region’s historical significance.

The revitalized Old Town AlUla

A Journey Through Time

The “Journey Through Time Masterplan,” initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to develop AlUla into a sustainable cultural oasis, preserving its 200,000-year heritage. The plan introduces five unique districts (AlUla Old Town, Dadan, Jabal Ikmah, Nabataean Horizon, and Hegra Historical City), enhancing AlUla’s status as the world’s “largest living museum,” with commitments to environmental and cultural preservation.

With the masterplan slated to deploy more than SAR 57 billion ($15 billion) in total, with SAR 12 billion ($3.2 billion) going towards essential infrastructure improvements, SAR 7.5 billion ($2 billion) has already been allocated to key projects like the expansion of AlUla International Airport and development of tourist attractions.

These efforts align with Vision 2030 and aim to rejuvenate AlUla through responsible development, infrastructure improvements, educational initiatives, and conservation efforts, promising a sustainable future while showcasing its rich historical legacy. These efforts are designed to offer residential and visitor-centric experiences that reflect their specific heritage, with a focus on creativity, immersion, and knowledge. By 2035, AlUla’s development plan expects to create 38,000 jobs for a projected population of 130,000, leveraging tourism, arts, culture, and agriculture. This initiative is expected to boost the Kingdom’s GDP by SAR 120 billion ($32 billion), highlighting its commitment to transforming its economic landscape.

The Kingdoms Institute will be a place of discovery, science and knowledge sharing with the local community and visitors from around the globe about the heritage and culture of the region.

The plan includes the establishment of the Kingdoms Institute in Dadan and the development of immersive experiences in the Nabataean Horizon, among other projects. This initiative seeks to expand AlUla’s cultural landscape while preserving its historical significance and natural beauty.

This plan also includes significant infrastructure developments like the expansion of AlUla Airport, a move that is likely to increase direct flights and global connectivity. As of 2024, Qatar Airways, flydubai, flynas, and Saudia Airlines offer direct flights in and out of AlUla International Airport (ULH) from Doha, Dubai, Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

Balancing Preservation and Innovation

Central to the commission’s vision is the delicate balance between preservation and innovation. The revitalization of AlUla Old Town, which houses 900 buildings, and the construction of the Maraya concert hall, a state-of-the-art venue with distinctive mirrored walls, marry historical respect with modern ingenuity and echo the region’s evolution into a cultural exchange and creative inspiration hub. These projects, alongside hosting events such as the Winter at Tantora festival, show AlUla’s growing prominence on the global cultural map.

The Kingdoms Institute, envisioned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was established as a global center for archaeological and conservation research in AlUla. It aims to explore and preserve 200,000 years of history, fostering knowledge and collaboration. To advance archaeological research and provide new career opportunities, the institute will serve as a hub for discovery, celebrating Arabia’s contributions to humanity. Its stated goal is to develop a new generation of Saudi archaeologists, conservators, and researchers, ensuring the preservation of AlUla’s cultural and historical legacy.

As His Highness Prince Badr, Governor of the Royal Commission for AlUla, puts it, “Inspired by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince’s Vision for AlUla to protect 200,000 years of history, AlUla’s cultural legacy continues with the Kingdoms Institute: a global hub for knowledge, research and collaboration, exploring the frontiers of archaeology and unlocking new careers for our community,” adding that the Kingdoms Institute is “A place for discovery and celebration, as we unfold Arabia’s contribution to humanity.”

Image courtesy of RCA

Conservation and Sustainability

AlUla’s allure extends beyond its ancient ruins. The region’s natural beauty, from its lush oasis to dramatic rock formations, offers a unique backdrop for adventure and exploration. The carved tombs at Hegra showcase the ancient Nabataeans’ artistic prowess while two pairs of carved lions at Dadan underscore the area’s deep historical significance. As host to Desert X AlUla, the region attracts contemporary artists, collectors, and art lovers from around the world, drawn to AlUla’s natural beauty as a place to display and enjoy the arts.

Sustainability is a key pillar of the RCU’s strategy, ensuring that development efforts harmonize with the region’s natural and archaeological heritage. Beyond tourism, the commission aims to build a thriving local community, supported by educational and cultural institutions designed to nurture future generations. In addition, efforts to reintegrate the Arabian Leopard into its native habitat underscore a commitment to conservation.

Kimsooja, To Breathe – AlUla, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) is fostering partnerships with local investors to provide housing units adhering to set standards. Initiatives like the “Name a Rock” competition invite participants to engage with AlUla’s unique landscapes, while the Integrated Survey aims to showcase its rich heritage. RCU’s engagement with tour operators and scholarship programs exemplify its commitment to education and responsible tourism development. The Hammaya program seeks to involve the community in conservation efforts. Moreover, projects like the Sharaan Nature Reserve and the Arabian Leopard Initiatives highlight RCU’s dedication to environmental and wildlife conservation, with Sharaan Resort poised to become a landmark architectural project by Jean Nouvel.

Looking Ahead

As AlUla opens its doors to the world, it invites visitors to journey through time, from exploring ancient Nabataean tombs at Hegra to participating in modern cultural festivals. This initiative represents a bold step towards realizing Saudi Arabia’s vision of a future that honors its past. It makes AlUla a beacon of cultural tourism and an example of sustainable development in harmony with heritage.

Will Smith joins Swizz Beats at the AlUla Camel Cup in 2023. Image: The National

Upcoming cultural and recreational events hold this out. Acclaimed record producer Swizz Beatz recently launched the “AlUla on Wheels II” event, an immersive roller-skating experience that spans three eras of music and skate culture. This event follows the success of the initial AlUla on Wheels, which blended nostalgia, cultural resonance, and futuristic vision through dance and skating.

The Royal Commission for AlUla’s approach to regional development highlights the critical role of heritage and culture in shaping forward-looking visions. As AlUla steps onto the world stage, it embodies Saudi Arabia’s vision, demonstrating the transformative power of balancing historical preservation with modern innovation. This initiative is not merely a development project; it’s a journey of discovery, offering insights into the soul of a land with profound stories of human history and potential.


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