A new era dawns for Saudi Arabia’s ancient cities of Al-Ula

1 / 4
Aerial view of Al-Ula old town.
2 / 4
Tombs carved out of sandstone outcrops by the Nabateans centuries ago abound in Madain Saleh.
3 / 4
Inscriptions on sandstones abound in Madain Saleh.
4 / 4
Rock art in Madain Saleh
Updated 10 April 2018

A new era dawns for Saudi Arabia’s ancient cities of Al-Ula

  • 200 young Saudis are in the vanguard of an ambitious project to bring travelers back to Al-Ula
  • Program aims to bring 1.5 to 2 million visitors to Al-Ula a year
PARIS: Five thousand years ago, Al-Ula was as cosmopolitan as they come. For traders and adventurers alike it was an essential stop on the road between the Mediterranean and the Arab world, and far beyond to Asia and Africa.
Now 200 young Saudis are in the vanguard of an ambitious project to bring travelers back to Al-Ula — this time as tourists and lovers of history, eager to explore one of the greatest profusions of cultural treasures to be found anywhere in the world.
Recruited from Al-Ula region, the 200 young people —  all high-school leavers or in their first year as university students, and split 50-50 between boys and girls — are in Riyadh being trained in hospitality, learning new languages, studying farming and water technology and swotting up on the cultural, social and natural history of their home region.
There is a great deal of ground to cover — literally as well as figuratively. Al-Ula province covers 22,000 square kilometers of golden sandstone and oases. The region, which is the size of Belgium, is packed with little-known treasures created by ancient civilizations. 
The Dadanites, the Lihyanites and Nabateans ruled over Al-Ula. There is ample evidence to show the ancient Greeks and Romans passed through, too. More recently, the Ottoman Turks were a force there.
It is believed that the Prophet Mohammed himself visited the Wadi Al-Qura in Al-Ula valley a few times, both as a child and an adult.
No wonder Al-Ula has been dubbed “an open-air museum,” or that a special royal commission was deemed necessary to oversee the task of bringing it to world attention and developing tourism in the region.
Amr Al-Madani is the chief executive of the Royal Commission on Al-Ula. Which is more important to him — preservation of the archeological sites, or developing tourism?
“The two go together,” he says. “We have to preserve the heritage, both cultural and natural, but we don’t want Al-Ula to be an archaeologists’ club. 
“We are in the lucky position of starting with a blank canvas so we can learn from the mistakes others have made in the past. What has lasted 5,000 years should not be ruined in 50. We are looking at sustainable tourism — both in the sense of respecting nature and also because we want our tourism industry to be long-term. 
“We want to give visitors the best experience we can, balanced against the need to preserve the assets we have. We don’t want to be a case study for someone in the future looking at what went wrong.”
Archaeologists have been working on excavations in Al-Ula for 16 years; now there are drones circling overhead so that the region can be properly mapped out for potential sites for hiking trails and tourism infrastructure.
The aim is to welcome the first tourists in three to five years, with an eventual capacity of 1.5 to 2 million a year “while still maintaining a great level of intimacy with the site,” Al-Madani says. 
He points out that Al-Ula was never completely unknown: “Curious tourists have always managed to find their way there; about 20,000 of them each year, mostly expats living in the Kingdom.”
For expert help in redeveloping and restoring Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia has turned to France as one of its partners.  It is hard to pin down who approached who first (“We met in the middle,” according to Al-Madani) but the result is a set of agreements between the culture ministries of both countries as well as academic institutions, management consultants and heritage organisations.
“France is one of the most visited countries in the world. When you look at heritage sites like Nimes or Avignon in the south of France, it is clear the culture of preservation is driven by the lifestyle,” said Al-Madani. “France is also the headquarters of Unesco and other heritage bodies.”
The triumph of the co-operation between the Louvre museum in Paris and the recently opened offshoot in Abu Dhabi was also a factor, he acknowledged.
“After exporting their expertise so successfully, they were keen to repeat the experience.”
Al-Ula already has one Unesco World Heritage site in the ancient city of Madain Saleh, which dates from at least 2,000 BC and was conquered by the Romans in the early 2nd century AD, becoming the most southerly point in the Roman Empire. The city was second only to Petra in Jordan as a place for the elite to bury their dead. 
The existing settlements of Al-Ula, Al-Atheeb and Moghairah can already cater for visitors but are ripe for immediate development. They also offer access to only 2,000 square kilometres, a fraction of Al-Ula’s total area. 
“There are also some nice hideaway resorts. It is possible to stay in Al-Ula in comfort already, but a hotel is much more than just a bed,” said Al-Madani. “We need better gastronomy and we intend to recruit chefs from all over the world. We need nightlife, performance, art, night walks. We don’t want to simply meet standards, we want to elevate them and set them for others to follow.”
A local airport opened four years ago and there are good roads; but improving public transport is another part of the project, along with linking up with plans for holiday resorts on the Red Sea, so visitors can spend time exploring the historic sites and follow up with a few days on the beach. The potential openings for anyone with the required skills, or the motivation to acquire them, seem almost limitless — a fact not lost on the young people of Al-Ula province. More than 2,100 people out of a local population of 70,000 applied for those 200 traineeships.
The chosen candidates will spend three to six months at college in Riyadh while careers advisers and psychologists assess their abilities and where they might be best applied.
“Then they will be sent out into the world, to improve their languages, to learn how to be independent,” said Al Madani. 
Young girls and boys sent out into the world to be independent? It is not the picture most outsiders  have of Saudi Arabia. The change in perception, the big plans, the breath-taking ambition of Vision 2030, all emanate from the country’s youthful crown prince.
“This is a new era for Saudi Arabia and it all comes from him,” said Al-Madani. The Al-Ula project, too? “Eveything.”
A graduate of Harvard Business School, Al-Madani has 15 years’ experience in discovering and nurturing innovation. He is also a former chief executive of the General Entertainment Authority, the body charged with bringing cinema, live performances and sporting events back to the Kingdom.
But he talks about Al-Ula with such zeal that Amr Al-Madani truly gives the impression that he believes he has the best job in town — any town. 
Certainly, re-introducing Al-Ula to the world is a bigger task than introducing the world to Al-Ula.
“Many centuries ago,” Al-Madani says, “Al-Ula was already used to seeing people from all over; Al Ula was global long, long ago.”

* * * * * * *
Arab News has seen many of the wonders of Al-Ula at first hand — from the air. We took a helicopter flight last year with the Australian archaeologist David Kennedy, who had been using Google Earth for years to explore Saudi Arabia’s vast desert plains.
“Seeing it from 500 feet is so much better,” he told Arab News, as he hung from the helicopter door while wearing a harness suit, with a camera in his hands.
There are 400 stone gates — thought to be used for trapping animals — and graves scattered across the lava fields known as Harrat Khaybar and Harrat Uwayrid.
“I’ve seen lava fields before and plenty of graves, but I’ve never seen ones like these. Absolutely amazing,” Kennedy said.
There are “so many wonderful sites. When we go back after refueling we’ll visit the best place,” he said — Harrat Uwayrid. “The graves in this lava field are overlapping, which is very unusual.”
In 2008, Abdullah Al-Saeed, a Saudi doctor, wrote to Kennedy asking him to check out sites in the Kingdom that he had spotted on Google Earth.
“I was stunned because I hadn’t thought of looking up Saudi Arabia before, as I thought the quality of the imagery for most of the Middle East was poor,” said Kennedy.
He described the images he found as “absolutely astonishing,” similar to sites he had seen in Jordan but with different designs. “So most people with the same idea executing it in a different way,” is how he described it. Kennedy and Al-Saeed co-wrote an article about it for Saudi Aramco World Magazine.
“There’s just so much there. I’ve been used to the lava field in Jordan, which is very rich, but Harrat Khaybar I think is richer. It’s an absolutely wonderful place.”
- Aisha Fareed, Riyadh





22,000 square kilometers - The size of Al-Ula province, equivalent in area to Belgium.

Meet Abdulrahman Eid: The Syrian artist inspired by Hijazi heritage

Updated 24 May 2019

Meet Abdulrahman Eid: The Syrian artist inspired by Hijazi heritage

  • ‘Saudi Arabia is becoming a fertile environment for young artists to develop’

JEDDAH: The unique heritage of the historic Jeddah area and the surrounding Hijaz region has long proved fascinating for visitors. That was certainly true for Abdulrahman Eid, a Syrian artist who has lived in the Kingdom for 18 years, and whose work is inspired by Hijazi culture and artistic heritage.

Eid was born in Damascus in 1997. Before moving to Saudi Arabia, he helped restore and renovate historic buildings and works of art, including antiques, manuscripts, and paintings.

He currently works as a jewelry designer in Jeddah, and has plans to share his knowledge with the public through courses and workshops, as he believes jewelry design could and should be much more popular in the Middle East.

Eid first came to Saudi Arabia to work as the director of an exhibition of Eastern and Antarctic at. He said he exhibited some of the work he had produced at Janadriyah’s cultural festival in 2002 and 2003. But between 2003 and 2018, he took a break from making his own artwork.

However, he is now back with a vengeance. His latest creation —  a diorama that portrays life in Jeddah in the 1950s, consists of more than 1,700 pieces, which Eid hopes will get him into the record books. His decision to document life in old Jeddah was partly driven, he says, by nostalgia for his homeland, and partly by his wish to acknowledge his appreciation of art.


The project, which Eid hopes to finish and present to the public within the next two weeks, has taken the artist more than three years of hard work so far, much of which was spent researching.

“I collected many books and old photographs of various Orientalists and studied how they were documenting the country in the 30s, 40s, and 50s,” he said. Eid found numerous sources through which he could study various historic houses and neighborhoods of old Jeddah, including —  of course —  walking the streets himself. He cites Noor Wali House, Al-Batarji, Beit Nasif, Al-Matbouli and others as inspirations. However, none of the houses in his artwork are named, or presented as exact replicas of existing buildings. 

“Some houses and neighborhoods with important historic value do not exist anymore, and I do not want to diminish any of their value. I collected various elements from different houses and made it into one unnamed neighborhood that imitates the reality of the past,” he said.

Eid’s diorama is 320 cm long, 130 cm high and 45 cm wide. It is full of houses, antique cars and shops — a carpet shop, a silver shop, a copper shop, and a shop for household items, such as pottery.

The intricate miniature pieces in the shops include handmade carpets, hanging lamps, lanterns, old swords and other weapons, old-fashioned household appliances, mirrors, antiques, gifts, and handicrafts of the kind sold to pilgrims. “I tried to integrate all the elements that were there in Hijaz in the past,” he said. “It is more of a documentary artwork.” Staying faithful to his source material, Eid even used precious stones and metals to create the miniature merchandise.

Eid describes his project as “a collection of around 10 types of art, including miniature, diorama, painting, sculpture, formative art, and jewelry design.”

His buildings incorporate the many distinctive decorative styles of traditional Hijazi architecture: panelings, moldings, door shapes, and Rawashin — the carved latticed windows typical of the area. “It contains a huge amount of art that interested the people of the country at that time,” he said of his ambitious project.

Eid said he has benefitted from the knowledge of many people who are familiar with historical Jeddah — including intellectuals, architects, civil engineers and local dignitaries.

“Many people have visited me in my studio and seen the work,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of amendments based on their recommendations. I took their comments into account and restructured the work several times over the past year until I finally reached the version that most closely embodies the reality.”

Eid said the fine and precise nature, and the astonishing variety, of Hijazi arts presented a serious challenge —  one that he was keen to embrace. “I found a unique, unparalleled precision and accuracy in Hijazi artistic heritage,” he said. “It is harmoniously composed of rich elements that I have not found in any other regions of the Kingdom.”

Still, he did sometimes worry that he had taken on too big a task. “Sometimes I felt I would not finish it for years,” he said.

Hijazi culture

Hijazi culture, Eid pointed out, is “cross-cultural.” Jeddah has been the main port for pilgrims for hundreds of years, and as a result, the city and surrounding areas have gained a unique character —  possessing the spirit of numerous other cities from both East and West. 

Eid claimed that anyone visiting Jeddah’s historic areas would likely see something of their own country there. “I saw something of Syria,” he said.

Over the last fortnight or so, photographs of Eid’s project have been widely shared on social media —  with some people mistakenly claiming that the images were off work based on the old cities in Damascus or Cairo.

“I was pleased with what happened,” Eid said. “I received a lot of encouragement and support.”

The Syrian artist said he has had many similar experiences with Damascene architecture when he was working in his homeland. “I have to say, though, that this experience has been more enjoyable, with its challenges, fine details, and richness,” he added. 

Eid said he believes recent years have seen an evolving renaissance in the arts in Saudi Arabia, marked by growing interest from the government and the public in the Kingdom’s heritage and its cultural value. 

“Saudi Arabia is becoming a fertile environment for young artists to develop,” he said. “The number of galleries has multiplied, and a real movement has begun. I believe this movement in Saudi Arabia will grant the youth diverse opportunities and will raise the standards and the level of competition between them.” Such competition is important to improve artists’ abilities and the quality of art works delivered to the public, he added.

While Eid views the current condition as very healthy, he pointed out that there are many young artists who need financial support if they are really going to fulfill their potential, and that “those who have the financial support still need guidance.”

“Regardless of everything,” he concluded. “I am sure the future is promising.”