Paris exhibition unravels mysteries of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

French and Saudi archaeologists recreating the story of AlUla since prehistoric times have uncovered evidence placing the region at the crossroads of several civilizations and a host of cultures.
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Updated 19 December 2019

Paris exhibition unravels mysteries of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

  • Once a center on ancient trade routes, AlUla is now the site of an ambitious project
  • AlUla is believed to have been at the crossroads of several civilizations and cultures

PARIS: Few spots in today’s world have remained mysterious to today’s archaeologists and scientists, armed with the latest, hi-tech tools that enable them to visualise and recreate the world as it may have been thousands, or even millions, of years earlier.

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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Yet, AlUla, located on an important route with links to Damascus, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, continues to remain hidden in a veil of mystery even as teams experts try to pry open the diverse region to understand its origins and history.

Lying on the route that connected Aden in the south to Damascus in the north, and from there onwards to Europe, AlUla is believed to have been on the crossroads of several civilizations and multiple cultures. It was an important resting place on the trade route, with its abundant water supply feeding several oases and lush green farms.

Since the emergence of Islam, it has also been an important site on the route connecting most of northern Middle East and Africa with Makkah and Madinah.

A dedicated team of French and Saudi archaeologists, historians and researchers, assisted by a host of experts from around the world, has been trying to rebuild the story of AlUla since prehistoric times right up to today.

Dr Laila Nehmé, a French historian and archeologist, has been involved in uncovering the mysteries of AlUla for nearly 30 years.

She and her colleagues have been able to fill in many holes in the site’s timeline and reconstruct, using a clutch of modern tools and computer software, a fairly comprehensive story of  a site that appears to have been continuously inhabited by humans for more than 200,000 years.




Painting on AlUla being shown at the Paris exhibition.
 

This is the story being told in a breathtaking exhibition entitled “AlUla Wonder of Arabia” that has been organized by the Royal Commission of AlUla, in collaboration with the French culture ministry and the Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) in Paris.

The exhibition showcases all aspects of AlUla and its evolution in the past 200,000 years, including 7,000 years of human inhabitation.

Covering more than 30,000 square kilometers, an area equivalent to that of Belgium, AlUla has seen several transformations in its geological as well as zoological composition. An impressive 3D model of the region, illuminated by computer software, recreates the geological and natural evolution of the region, with a range of diverse incidents such as large-scale floods, immense volcanic eruptions and of course the seemingly endless desertification.

All of these incidents have had a huge impact on AlUla’s history and this is what is recreated in the exhibits at the IMA.

The exhibition, was inaugurated on Monday by the Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan and Franck Rieter, the French culture minister, as well as Jack Lang, the President of the IMA and a former French minister.

Nehmé says that AlUla is literally a living museum, with its extremely well-preserved tombs, historic dwellings, monuments as well as captivating sandstone outcrops that hide in their hearts a largely untold story of more than 200,000 years of history. And despite the 30-years put in by her and dozens of other researchers, AlUla seems to be preciously guarding its secrets.

For instance, Nehmé says that it is very difficult to predict with any degree of certainty the human dimensions of AlUla, especially the variations in its population over the several cycles of ups and downs that the region clearly has seen over the course of its long history.

 

  • AlUla was the capital the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan, which controlled the caravan trade.
  • Mada’in Salih was the principal southern city of the Nabatean kingdom, famed for its spectacular monumental tombs.

‘‘I would say it is difficult to put a finger on the exact figure of what might have been the maximum or even the optimum population of AlUla at a given time, notably in the early years of Dadanite and other pre-Roman eras. I might venture to say between 5,000 to 20,000, but it is only a guess and not based on any scientific certitude,’’ Nehmé told Arab News during a preview offered to leading media from around the world just before the official inauguration.

Another big mystery about AlUla is the transition between various kingdoms and empires. In the span of less than 800 years, from the 6th century BC to 2nd century AD, AlUla changed hands between the neolithic empires of Dadanites and Lihyanites and then onto the Nabateans from the Jordan valley and finally the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd century AD.

Despite the frequent changes, Nehmé says the team of archaeologists has not been able to pinpoint the exact nature of these political changes.

‘‘We have not found any significant elements that can allow us to conclude that there may have been wars between the kingdoms, nor do we have any particular catastrophic moment that may have led to the change of power in AlUla.

For instance, if we had found traces of large-scale burnings or destruction at a particular time in history, we may have looked at possibilities like outbreaks of wars or diseases or even natural catastrophes. But here, so far, we have not yet found any such elements,’’ says Nehmé.

For Amr Al-Madani, the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Commission of AlUla, these unresolved mysteries can only add to the allure of the region for not just scientists and researchers from all across the world, but tourists and those interested in learning about human civilization and its evolution as well as people that like nature and environment.

‘‘AlUla has everything for anyone looking for any of these elements. It is a jewel of Saudi Arabia and we want to share this with the entire world and that is why we are mounting a series of events and activities to allow visitors from all over the world to come and enjoy at AlUla and relive the story of the evolution of human civilisation,’’ Al-Madani said.




A Nabatean inscription

Amongst the several wonderful sights that await visitors in AlUla are thousands of rock inscriptions dating back to the prehistoric period and some of which also go on to show the evolution of the Arabic script as the Nabatean script slowly evolved into Arabic in the early centuries of the first millennium AD.

AlUla also has hundreds of tombs built by Nabateans in the same style as in their most famous city, Petra, in Jordan. The most famous Nabatean site in AlUla is of course Mada'in Salih, also known as Hegra, which was recognised by UNESCO as the first World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia.

AlUla is a repository not just of the beauty of human creations. There are plenty of nature’s wonders, too, for the visitors to admire. There are hundreds of sandstone and basalt rock outcrops, carved beautifully by nature over thousands of years that offer a breathtaking view.

Al-Madani said the Royal Commission of AlUla has planned a series of activities, beginning later this year, to allow visitors and tourists to relish the region, even though the site will be thrown open fully to tourists only in October next year.

While opening the AlUla to the world, Al-Madani also stresses that the royal commission will keep the focus on community involvement and sustainable tourism to ensure that not only the heritage of AlUla is well-preserved, but that the local community remains a major stakeholder and beneficiary of tourism and the cultural activities that would take place there.

‘‘We need to be sure that we hand over AlUla to the future generations in the same unspoilt and well-preserved state in which we have inherited it,’’ Al-Madani said.

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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Saudi Arabia joins club of Middle East’s ‘green energy’ leaders

Updated 20 January 2020

Saudi Arabia joins club of Middle East’s ‘green energy’ leaders

  • Government plans to invest up to $50bn in renewable energy projects by 2023
  • Demand for electricity in the Kingdom is forecast to rise by up to 120 GW by 2030

ABU DHABI: Saudi Arabia has become one of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s leaders in the race to use renewable energy, according to a new study.

The Solar Outlook Report 2020 was launched at the Solar Forum of the World Future Energy Summit, a highlight of this year’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (Jan. 11-18).
The report, prepared by Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), the largest regional body of its kind, said Saudi Arabia and Oman have joined the UAE, Morocco and Egypt as leaders in the renewables race.
“Saudi Arabia is now in the third year of implementation of its massive target of 60 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy generation by 2030,” it said.
Martine Mamlouk, secretary-general of MESIA, said that investment in solar energy is evident across MENA countries. “Saudi Arabia has a target of almost 60 gigawatts of renewable energy, out of which 40 gigawatts are solar,” she told Arab News.
“This is in line with the Kingdom’s objective of diversification and Vision 2030. While the industry is reaching grid parity, it is great to see the deployment of new innovative technologies to increase efficiency of systems, production management and grids.”
Upcoming solar projects in the Kingdom include Madinah, Rafh, Qurayyat, Al-Faisaliah, Rabigh as well as Jeddah, Mahd Al-Dahab, Al-Rass, SAAD and Wadi Ad-Dawasir, along with Layla and PIF.
Saudi Arabia’s energy demand has been rising steadily, with consumption increasing by 60 percent in the past 10 years, according to data provided by market researchers Frost & Sullivan. Demand for electricity in 2019 reached 62.7 GW and is forecast to rise by up to 120 GW by 2030.
The value of solar-power projects in the MENA region is estimated at between $5 billion and $7.5 billion. By 2024, that figure is expected to approach $15 billion to $20 billion.
Under its Vision 2030 program, the Kingdom aims to reduce its dependency on oil revenues, diversify its energy mix and tap its renewable energy potential.

Saudi Acwa power-generating windmills that have been erected in Jbel Sendouq, on the outskirts of Tangier, Morocco. (Reuters)

After the Renewable Energy Project Development Office (REPDO) was set up within the Ministry of Energy, the goals for the Kingdom’s National Renewable Energy Program (NREP) were revised upwards in 2018, resulting in a five-year target of 27.3 GW and a 12-year target of 58.7 GW.
The Saudi government plans to invest up to $50 billion in renewable energy projects by 2023.
“At MESIA, we are excited to see solar developments in the MENA region accelerating and reaching attractive tariffs, while lowering the carbon footprint of regional economies,” Mamlouk said.
“The total investment in renewables in MENA between 2019 and 2023 is expected to be $71.4 billion, representing a 34 percent share of the total investment in the power sector, which is valued at $210 billion.”
Changes introduced by Saudi Arabia include a focus on local developers and easing of regulations for local manufacturers of solar panels.
A Local Content and Government Procurement Authority has been established to oversee and audit local content compliance.
Separately, a Renewable Energy Financing package has been launched by the Saudi Industrial Development Fund to support the growth of utility and distributed-generation sectors.
After solar photovoltaic panels were installed on the roof of a mosque in Riyadh, the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center recommended a similar move at other mosques.
Meanwhile, plans for the use of solar panels in the Saudi agro-industry have led to burgeoning interest in the technology, with several industrial facilities expected to have their own units in the not-too-distant future.
For good measure, a regulatory framework to allow exchanges with the power grid is being studied by the Electricity Co-generation Regulatory Authority.
Flexible storage solutions, such as hydrogen, will give intermittent renewable energy a greater share in the energy system, Mamlouk said.

“It may enable present-day oil and gas exporters to become key renewable energy exporters tomorrow. The solar industry is thrilled and proud to participate in this profound transformation of Saudi Arabia’s energy system.”
In the past year solar tariffs have fallen to record low levels in the MENA region, mainly due to tremendous cost declines that have brought the goal of grid parity within reach.
With installed solar electricity capacity worldwide standing at 617.9 GW, MENA governments are staying focused on energy diversification with the help of large-scale projects.
In the UAE, Dubai is targeting the completion of a 5 GW facility by 2030 at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park. Abu Dhabi has “engaged” its second-largest solar project and is considering the roll-out of more units by 2025.

INNUMBER

62.7GW - Demand for electricity in Saudi Arabia in 2019

Morocco aims to reach 52 percent contribution by renewables in its energy mix by 2030. The figures for Tunisia and Egypt are 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, by 2022.
Oman expects solar-power plants totaling 1.5 GW to come on stream by the end of 2022. Even Iraq, with all its political troubles and administrative paralysis, has not ignored solar power in drawing up plans for its future energy mix.
“Investments in renewable energy have reached billions in all Arab countries,” Mohammed Al-Taani, secretary-general of the Arab Renewable Energy Commission, said.
“Jordan is spending more on renewable energy, and we encourage people to have more independence with renewables by generating their own electricity to reduce their bills.”


Nevertheless, challenges remain when it comes to implementing projects in rural and isolated areas, according to Mustapha Taoumi, a technology expert at the EU-GCC Clean Energy Technology Network.

“With regard to issues of power grid and access to the people, we have to prepare for everything and be ready to receive new technology because there are communities with little income and education,” he said.
“Then there is the challenge of implementation on the part of different actors and sectors. Social acceptance is also important as we come with new technologies and (information on) how to use them.
“We have to be innovative when it comes to financing the facilitation process. We have to be fair and democratic,” he said.
Although this is an exciting time for the region, governments will have to step up their efforts since they are still subsidizing the cost of power, Taoumi said.
“Technologies are evolving quickly, so decision-making must keep pace,” he said. “We could end up having smart meters in rural and isolated areas in two to three years.”