AL-ULA, Saudi Arabia: Jean Nouvel, the French architect who is designing a resort among the rocks of Al-Ula, told Arab News that he believes the heritage area will become a global tourist destination because of its unique qualities.
“Building Sharaan Resort represents an amazing opportunity because of its location on one of the world’s important historic sites,” he told Arab News, in an exclusive interview, speaking in French.
The region is known for its natural landscapes, including its sandstone rock formations, and archaeological sites such as Madain Saleh, the largest Nabatean settlement south of Petra that contains the ancient civilization’s rock tombs with their carved facades. In 2008, it was designated as Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage site.
Nouvel said that Sharaan Resort will be located among the rocks deep in a valley inside a 925-square-kilometer Sharaan Nature Reserve; both take their name from the surrounding canyon, which is a short trip away from Madain Saleh.
Both are cornerstones in the new vision for Al-Ula, which was launched Sunday night by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, governor of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.
READ MORE: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince launches mega tourism projects in ancient area of Al-Ula
“I think that for an architect to build a project on such a site is a rare and wonderful opportunity,” said Nouvel, who brought the world’s attention to the UAE for his design of Louvre Abu Dhabi when it opened in 2017. “The area is characterized by the diversity and precision of its unique embossments that were defined by the movement of the wind and the water.”
While the full design not due until the end of this year, Nouvel said that it will be built among the rocks in Sharaan. “I actually established the relation between history and modernity by using the region’s geographical nature, especially the rocks,” he said. “We will rely on the knowledge to create some internal fresh spaces similar to the patios found in the Arab culture.”
“I thought that we could use the rocks because their temperature is always at 20 degrees. It will allow us to welcome guests inside the rocks without consuming a lot of energy. It also offers them the chance to get on top of the rocks and contemplate the magnificent sceneries.
“That is why I think visitors will be happy and amazed here. They will come to spend a few days and interact with one another. This could turn architecture and culture into a means of connection, a better way to understand and express the culture and pleasures of an era through the furnished units.”
#LIVE: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince #MohammedBinSalman signed off as he lays the foundation stone for #AlUla mega tourism projects, officially inaugurating the ancient city as a world destination #Vision2030 #رويه_العلا https://t.co/pDiMnQ3CmR pic.twitter.com/QGJa4VvZMo
— Arab News (@arabnews) February 10, 2019
The resort will include residential estates, a summit center, a spa and restaurants. Construction is expected to begin in early 2020, with a completion date of 2023. The reserve will conserve and restore the region’s natural desert habitats, including the Arabian leopard, with the help of local rangers trained by international experts.
Both will be crucial to realizing the ambitious goals of the commission, which aims, by 2035, to attract 2 million visitors to the area, creating 38,000 jobs and generating SR120 billion ($32 billion). It is also in keeping with the crown prince’s Vision 2030, which aims to develop the Kingdom’s tourism sector and provide the younger generation with the skills that they need for the future as it diversifies the economy away from its dependence on oil.
#LIVE: Royal Commission of #AlUla, through the launch of the World Fund for the Protection of the Arabian #Leopard, aims to be the largest of its kind in the worldhttps://t.co/pDiMnQ3CmR pic.twitter.com/YBQl3lomuH
— Arab News (@arabnews) February 10, 2019
The commission has already launched a scholarship program to train Saudi students in the US, the UK and France in the fields of tourism and archaeology; this year, it will add architecture and environmental planning to the mix. The Hammayah program will also provide up to 2,500 opportunities for local men and women to get involved in a community effort to preserve the wonders of Al-Ula.
The project is all about “locals, locals, locals,” Rami Al-Sakran, capabilities development manager for the commission, who is leading the Al-Ula scholarship program, told Arab News at the announcement on Sunday. “Without the locals, we can’t succeed.”
The plan was launched at a groundbreaking ceremony at Maraya, a concert hall with a mirrored facade that was built for the Winter at Tantora festival, which will bring visitors to the untouched area for two more weekends.
“This is just so beautiful, the desert and the sky at night, the stars… the natural beauty here is stunning,” Yanni told Arab News at the ceremony. “I have never experienced this type of beauty before in my life.”