The French agency helping Saudi Arabia realize AlUla’s potential

AlUla will become the world’s ‘largest living museum’ under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plans.
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Updated 21 February 2020

The French agency helping Saudi Arabia realize AlUla’s potential

  • Afalula is contributing to the development of site that forms a vital part of Vision 2030 plan
  • Kingdom seeks to turn AlUla into the world’s largest living museum and a major heritage tourism destination

PARIS: Gerard Mestrallet is executive chairman of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (Afalula), the Saudi heritage site that is fast becoming an international cultural and tourist attraction.

AlUla, in the Kingdom’s northwest, is known for its natural beauty and archaeological diversity.

It has hosted major cultural events, including a site-responsive outdoor art installation featuring the work of Saudi and international artists, and a music festival with world-famous stars.



French gastronomy has been an important part of the Winter at Tantora Festival, which will continue in AlUla until March 7.

Earlier in February, it announced that the Kingdom is planning to develop AlUla into the world’s largest living museum and a major cultural, arts, adventure tourism and heritage destination.

Mestrallet spoke to Arab News from Afalula’s Paris office, where pictures and videos of AlUla welcome visitors, and perfumes produced in AlUla with the expertise of Grasse, the southern French city renowned for fragrance, tickle the senses.

He talked about how the agency and France will contribute to the development of a site that forms a vital part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

“French President Emmanuel Macron appointed me to head the agency for the development of AlUla because I’d previously managed Engie and Suez, which contributed to important world projects and had invested massively in water treatment, desalination of seawater, and electricity production in Gulf countries,” Mestrallet told Arab News.

Afalula’s Paris office, right.  (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

“When Macron met the crown prince, the prince asked him for French support for the development of AlUla, and the president entrusted me to negotiate the development and to create a French agency for AlUla on the model of the French agency for the (Louvre) museum that was created in Abu Dhabi,” he said.

“We negotiated with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) before the Crown Prince’s visit to Paris in April 2018, and we were prepared. The agreement was signed at the Elysée Palace during the crown prince’s state visit.”

The agency’s creation was defined in a treaty between France and Saudi Arabia, Mestrallet said.

“We have a dual role — on the one hand, to plan the project jointly with the RCU, and on the other hand, to mobilize the vast range of French expertise in all areas of the project: Engineers, architects, urban planning, infrastructure for roads, energy, transport, water and gastronomic training,” he said.

“We have access to renowned French chefs in AlUla, but young Saudis are also given gastronomic training in France. We also have contributions from major French cultural institutions such as the Louvre, Chambord, Versailles, and we have access to French knowledge relating to tourism, hotels and security.”

He said the team comprises 30 highly qualified people. The architecture and urban planning sector are headed by Etienne Tricaud, former president and founder of AREP, the biggest architectural firm in France.

Tricaud was so efficient, according to the Saudis, that he was given the responsibility to integrate both teams — the French one and the RCU’s — into a single entity.

Gerard Mestrallet, head of the agency for the development of the site

Nicolas Lefebvre, head of Afalula’s department of tourism and hospitality, along with the CEO of the Eiffel Tower Co., have been charged with making the site a leader in sustainable tourism.

Mestrallet said: “For security, the head is Bernard Petit, the former chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. For botanical products and concepts, we have Elizabeth Dodinet, with over 20 years’ experience in archeology, ethnobotany and aromatic plant research.

“Then we have Regis Dantaux, in charge of human resources; Charles Chaumin, in charge of water and the environment; Stephane Forman, in charge of agriculture; and Jean-François Charnier, scientific director.

“Clearly, we have an exceptionally high level of expertise that France is making use of in order to make this Saudi project a success in every sense.”

Mestrallet said the masterplan represents what the project will be in 10-20 years, with resorts, hotels and museums, and there are plans for eight museums to be built.

One project is from the French “star-chitect” Jean Nouvel, who built the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Nouvel is designing a hotel complex in Sharan Nature Reserve. The project was the crown prince’s idea before the RCU was officially created, Mestrallet said.

An architecture competition was organized for a hotel complex, and Nouvel won. “I was part of the international jury that selected him, and his project is really amazing,” Mestrallet said.

“It will be built entirely in the rock, and will thus have a minimal impact on the nature reserve.”

ALSO READ: French engineer returns ancient coins to AlUla

The AlUla project is on a site the size of a small city, and Afalula will take part in its future development.

“There will be billions in investments, but it will be essential for us to respect the site, its natural features, the heritage, principles and rules for sustainable development, and its impact on the local populations. It is thus a complex challenge,” Mestrallet said.

“These principles are part of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030, and are included as part of the treaty between France and Saudi Arabia. French companies will take part just like others in tenders, and we’re here to assist and mobilize them.”

Saudi Arabia aims to host 2 million visitors per year in AlUla by 2035. The RCU, which is responsible for protecting and promoting the area, estimates that the project will create more than 67,000 jobs, almost half of them in the tourism sector.

Around 80 percent of AlUla county will be protected, including cultural and natural heritage sites.

Mestrallet said the first masterplan will be finished in six months. “We’re very happy to be associated with this project, which touches upon the soul of Saudi Arabia and will have a huge impact,” he said.

“The project is linked to 7,000 years of history in the Kingdom, and by developing it, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman want to reveal this history to their people. Our role is to use French expertise in order to serve this purpose.”

There will be a large research center on Arab civilization, and eight museums in AlUla.

One museum will be dedicated to modern art, and Afalula is relying on revered French cultural institutions such as the Pompidou Museum to participate.

Another museum is devoted to the Nabatean period, and other museums will focus on horses, astronomy, minerals, perfumes and oases.

French gastronomy was an important part of the second year in the Winter at Tantora festival, which takes place every weekend for 10 weeks from the beginning of December, Mestrallet said.

“A concert hall has been built in the desert, as well as housing for the festival. There’s a magical spot, surrounded by Nabatean tombs, which features an open-air restaurant where many-starred Michelin French chefs visit and cook. Some of these are Anne Sophie Pic, who has two three-star restaurants and another with two stars.

The first female French chef who came was Hélène Darroze. Other outstanding chefs included Yannick Alleno of Le Doyen restaurant in Paris; Guy Martin, chef of the Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris; and Arnaud Donckele, the three-star chef of the Cheval Blanc hotel in St. Tropez, who will open a Cheval Blanc restaurant at the Samaritaine department store in Paris.”

The AlUla project aims to open the Kingdom to the world, Mestrallet said, adding: “It’s an immense privilege for us to follow up on the French president’s decision to participate in the creation of this project.

“We want to be sure that the project is respectful of sustainable development, the wellbeing of the environment, and its effect on all the local populations.”

Reclaiming what was lost: Nostalgia in Arab art

In Adra Kandil’s mid-20s, she has cultivated a deep attachment to photography from the 1960s. (Supplied)
Updated 09 April 2020

Reclaiming what was lost: Nostalgia in Arab art

  • A new generation of artists and designers in the Middle East are ‘part of an awakening for a past that has been undervalued’

BEIRUT: It’s mid-February in Beirut and the visual artist Adra Kandil is discussing old photographs in a café on Bliss Street. Although in her mid-20s, she has cultivated a deep attachment to photography from the 1960s — particularly Lebanon’s Golden Age and the imagery associated with the country’s pre-war heyday. For her, such photographs represent something that has been irretrievably lost. 

“My memories are amplified and seem much better than they really were,” she says. “I romanticize memories. That’s the thing with time passing: It glorifies what you once had. I construct from that feeling — the happiness, the melancholy; all of it.”

For Adra Kandil, such photographs represent something that has been irretrievably lost. (Supplied)

It is this loss and sentimentality that drives Kandil’s work: a collection of collages and compositions that have a nostalgic, dreamlike quality. There are old newspapers, flowers, film stars, vintage cityscapes, Air Liban tickets, coffee cups and classic cars in her artwork, which she releases under the moniker Dear Nostalgia. In many the moon features prominently. 

“I create from an accumulation of memories, feelings, scents and sounds,” says Kandil, whose work enables her to explore themes of childhood, home and identity. “My memory is very much based on my sensory experiences. I am inspired by what once was, and inspired by collecting and putting things together from my past, or a collective past. My work always has a message and the process isn’t linear. Sometimes an old photograph inspires me, sometimes a new song from my playlist, sometimes a story about my father’s childhood.”

It is this loss and sentimentality that drives Kandil’s work: a collection of collages and compositions that have a nostalgic, dreamlike quality. (Supplied)

She’s far from alone. A new generation of artists and designers have embraced the imagery of their collective past. From cultural icons including Umm Kulthum, Fayrouz, Sabah, Abdel Halim Hafez and Asmahan, to vintage signs and photographs of old Beirut and Damascus, there’s a palpable sense of nostalgia to much of their work. Even the scripts these artists use are synonymous with certain eras: Ruqʿah, for example, a shorthand script often associated with Egyptian movie posters. 

Examples of work from a number of these artists and designers can be found on Arabic Pop Art, an Instagram account that curates pop and collage art inspired by Arab culture. There’s Stephany Sanossian, who places modern pop-culture figures in old Arab settings, and Saba Mousavi, who goes by the name and has a fondness for the Palestinian cause. 

Rana Salam who first captured her distinctive visual style in 1992. (Supplied)

“There’s something visually charming about nostalgia which gives you that dreamy, romantic feel which a lot of people might prefer over today’s more minimalistic, or even more realistic, visual approach,” says Paola Mounla, the founder of Art of Thawra, an Instagram account that curates art related to Lebanon’s recent protests. “That said, when it comes to Lebanon, the common feeling among the Lebanese is that the country’s best days were pre-war, and so any art that is nostalgic will bring out that feeling of ‘Oh, those good old days.’”

That this sense of nostalgia is noticeably stronger in Lebanon and Palestine is understandable. The former has seen its cities scarred by war and its landscape butchered by political and corporate greed. The latter has seen its people displaced and its land stolen. This sense of loss is now being felt in Syria too.

But there’s also a more universal feeling. One that involves the reclamation of the past and a celebration of Arab culture, says the Lebanese designer Rana Salam, who has used pop-culture imagery to create everything from posters and bags to cushions and towels. For her, Egyptian or Lebanese cultural icons, just like those of other countries, are key to setting those countries apart and to challenging prevailing perceptions of the Arab world.

Lebanese designer Rana Salam has used pop-culture imagery to create everything from posters and bags to cushions and towels. (Supplied)

“I was studying in London and felt that the British had no clue what the Middle East or Beirut looked like,” says Salam, who first captured her distinctive visual style in 1992. “And as I majored in visual communication and art direction at the Royal College of Art, I was taught how to translate a culture by highlighting its strength. And for me pop culture spoke the loudest.

“Nostalgia is one way of reaching people emotionally… and I know that I was part of an awakening for a past that had been disposed of and undervalued,” she continues. “And by reviving the past I have made many fall in love with their culture, have pride in their culture, and focus on local ideas and production rather than importing only Western ones.”

It’s not all positive. There are those who would describe nostalgia as a malaise. As an emotion that throws a golden glow around the past and distorts the collective memory.

Dana Barqawi is a Palestinian artist whose work celebrates Palestinian existence and culture. (Supplied)

“I feel we need to draw the difference between a nostalgic message and a nostalgic visual style,” says Mounla. “In both Adra and Stephany’s case, the visual style is nostalgic but the message is always progressive and anchored in today. In this case, I feel they’re creating something totally new and I’m not even sure it should be labeled as ‘nostalgia.’”

Kandil’s work addresses issues of nationality, culture and social and political change, while Dana Barqawi — a Palestinian artist whose work celebrates Palestinian existence and culture — portrays the people of the land before 1948 using old photographs, ink, newspaper, gold leaf and thread. For both artists, nostalgia is used for a purpose. Dig beneath the aesthetics and you’ll find strong political and social messages.

For Barqawi, that has meant challenging the widely cited rhetoric that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. That’s why all of the photographs she uses were taken “before the land and its people were forcibly removed and displaced.”

Barqawi lives in Amman and her work is currently being exhibited at the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC. (Supplied)

“Nostalgia is defined as the sentimental yearning for a return to a past period or place with happy personal associations,” says Barqawi, who lives in Amman and whose work is currently being exhibited at the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC. “I come from a diaspora generation that mostly only heard about Palestine from first generations who either romanticized it or never wanted to speak of the past because it was too painful. My generation developed a sense of belonging to a place they’ve never seen or been to, a place they never lived in. Palestine became more than just a place; it became a concept of justice, freedom, resistance, existence, beauty, but also the sadness that comes with something unattainable.

“I intend that my act of artistic creation is inseparable from notions of the real world. In times where socio-political changes compose an inherent part of our reality, I choose to reflect the context within my work, consequently creating politically and socially engaged art,” she continues. “I might use nostalgia to appeal to an audience on a feel-good level — (just as) I use beauty in my work as a tool to attract the viewer — but beyond the pleasing nature of the work, and below those aesthetic layers, there is a political agenda which challenges the institutional invisibility of Palestinian history and experience.”