An ancient city home to 200 thousand years of largely unexplored human history is rapidly emerging as a global cultural hub. That city is AlUla, located at the heart of a scenic desert - roughly the size of Belgium - in Saudi Arabia’s historic northwest. Not unlike the country’s youthful majority, AlUla is hardly defined by a single function.
At the nexus of national development and economic diversification, the city is at once an open-air living museum, a crossroad of cultural civilization, the Middle East’s most significant archaeological cluster, and a crucial lever in the region’s most ambitious reform project, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
As the Gulf States look to diversify their oil-dependent economies, they are pinning hopes on tourism’s untapped potential to foster growth. In a mercurial industry, competition is fierce. But the idiosyncratic package AlUla has to offer is inimitable, transcending competition altogether. How? The answer lies in AlUla’s unique value proposition.
Far too many tourist destinations in the Gulf vacillate between sun and sea getaways and posh metropolitan smart cities. Both options share a dreary, trendy predictability, supplying the demand for a tepid escape from your average daily routine. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Such predictability is successful, whether through the same upscale dining experiences vaguely mixing Italianate and East Asian dishes or the same gently upbeat music played while consuming them. To lament their predictable existence is tantamount to lamenting the popularity of superhero movies – they sell, so they persist.
But while predictable tourism hotspots and superhero films can be good, they’re seldom great. And that’s where AlUla stands out: it offers an immersive experience where history and modernity coalesce, a cultural oasis of galleries, festivals, art pedagogy, and archaeological anomalies.
Long impregnable to global tourism and home to the country’s first UNESCO heritage site, Hegra, AlUla is swiftly penetrating must-do itineraries for travelers seeking the unpredictable. A treasure trove of human history spanning over eight millennia, AlUla has over 23,000 archaeological sites, with only a small number of those already excavated. Experts estimate that merely five percent of the area’s archaeological riches have been revived.
With time at its core, the city relays a holistic narrative – 3,000-year-old carvings stand tall alongside modern art festivals and residencies. These include: the Desert X AlUla; Winter at Tantoura; AlUla Arts Festival, and a host of exhibitions running in tandem.
Platforms to showcase creative prowess – both local and international – are coupled with art residencies to empower budding talent from the bottom-up. This past December, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) and the French Agency for AlUla Development (Afalula) launched the city’s inaugural art residency program. A new milestone in AlUla’s cultural development, the 11-week residency amplifies strategic dialogue and collaboration between local practitioners, artists in residence, and the community of experts working on the ground in AlUla.
The RCU has also launched a language institute and a tailored scholarship program to ensure proactive community-level engagement. Unlike various approaches to tourism in the region, this approach transcends an import-oriented model by organically integrating aspects of Saudi heritage and youth into the AlUla’s rise as a global cultural hub, unleashing local potential in the process.
The most recent manifestation of this approach is seen in the making of Gerard Butler’s upcoming action thriller, Kandahar. Directed by Butler’s regular collaborator Ric Roman Waugh, over 10 percent of the crew and extras working on the film are Saudi nationals. Kandahar is not only the first prominent feature to shoot in its entirety in AlUla, but the biggest to leverage the Northwest’s lush green oases, yellow sand dunes, and perhaps most significantly, the country’s hugely competitive 40 percent film cash rebate incentive.
Beyond attracting international acclaim, AlUla’s rapid rise demonstrates the social and cultural strides underway in the Kingdom. But how exactly does all this tie into Saudi national development? Why is AlUla central to the Kingdom’s ambitious plans to diversify and successfully transition into a knowledge-based economy? Economically, a thriving cultural ecosystem in AlUla will positively impact the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI), job creation, and the visibility and attractiveness of the Saudi tourism sector. Research indicates that FDI inflow is closely correlated with states’ ability to showcase their domestic economic potential and cultural beauty to the broader international community. AlUla’s ascent to cultural stardom will serve as a powerful illustration of those factors.
Economic metrics aside, a flourishing cultural ecosystem in AlUla unleashes local creative potential, strengthens national identity, improves the quality of life, promotes social cohesion, and helps deepen strategic ties with nations worldwide through cultural diplomacy. The most recent Saudi partnership with the French government to work with French cultural institutions in developing AlUla is a clear case in hand.
What does the future hold for the Kingdom’s hidden gem? On the anniversary of the announcement of Vision 2030, The RCU launched its regeneration project – The Journey Through Time Masterplan – representing a $15 billion opportunity for responsible investment in public-private partnership projects. Upon completion in 2035, the development project aims to create 38,000 new jobs, attract 2 million visitors a year, expand the area’s population to 130,000, and contribute $32 billion to the Kingdom’s economy. Over $2 billion has already been invested in the project, and $3.2 billion is being spent on priority infrastructure.
After 8,000 years of human history, AlUla once more finds itself the center of attention – at the heart of a creative waltz between the past and the present. What was once a vital trading hub along famous incense-trading routes is rapidly emerging as a global cultural hub. History is, therefore, rhyming, if not quite repeating itself. And it’s about time the world dances to AlUla’s beat once again.