How France played a role in promoting Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

When the Institut du Monde Arabe launched its immersive exhibition “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia” in October 2019, more than 10,000 Parisians and international visitors experienced a rare opportunity to discover a little-known slice of Arab archaeological history. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 14 July 2020

How France played a role in promoting Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

  • How the French have been involved with Saudi Arabia’s bid to share its ancient treasures with the world

DUBAI: When the Institut du Monde Arabe launched its immersive exhibition “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia” in October 2019, more than 10,000 Parisians and international visitors experienced a rare opportunity to discover a little-known slice of Arab archaeological history in the French capital.

Co-curated by the Saudi archaeologist and Royal Commission for AlUla consultant, Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, the exhibition was the first of its kind, designed to showcase the multiple histories and remarkably preserved Nabatean architecture of the city of AlUla through a diverse display of 265 artifacts and interactive screens.

In a dimly lit atmosphere, visitors laid eyes on sandy-toned human and animal sculptures, inscribed rocks, delicate coins and incense burners that have been unearthed by Saudi-French excavation teams and King Saud University. A feast for the eyes, a majority of what was on display was made accessible to the public for the first time.

After being extended for almost six weeks past its closing date on Jan. 19 this year, the museum was able to attract everyone, from children and parents to curious tourists, along with members of the international press. Even President Emmanuel Macron was treated to a private guided tour of the exhibition, which was spread across two floors of the museum.

Almost every detail of the exhibition — from its significant venue to the choice of expertise invited to take part and loans coming from other French museums — marked a renewed strengthening of Saudi-Franco cultural relations.

“Culturally speaking, I believe the exhibition broke many barriers,” said Alsuhaibani in an interview with Arab News. “Culture is usually the fastest, strongest, and most efficient way of breaking barriers between nations in general. The exhibition was a success and an excellent platform to not only introduce people to AlUla but also, in the bigger picture, the land of the Kingdom.”

One of the highlights of the exhibition was when the French aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand was invited to film AlUla’s natural scenery, notably the massive tombs of Hegra and Dadan’s lush green oasis. The detailed animated films were projected onto large screens, transporting the viewer to the heart of AlUla.

“The rich environment of AlUla was a key point and we wanted to display it,” recalled Alsuhaibani. “Yann Arthus-Bertrand was a world-renowned professional, who was capable of allowing the visitor to virtually experience this place. Given his prior relations with the Institut du Monde Arabe, we were able to sign a contract with him and he did an amazing job.”

History shows, however, that this was not the first time the French (including other European nationals) expressed interest in the history of Hejaz (now part of modern-day Saudi Arabia). In fact, during the 19th century, several French travellers made their way to the area, documenting what they encountered.

Chief of them was Charles Huber, who Alsuhaibani described as one of the first Frenchmen to visit in 1878. Collecting rock specimens from the area, Huber’s travels to Hejaz and northern Najd were supported by the French government, which also sponsored publishing his maps and travel accounts, “Journal d’un voyage en Arabie, 1883-1884.”

Other important travelers to AlUla, specifically, were the French priests and archaeologists Antonin Jaussen (1871-1962) and Raphael Savignac (1874-1951). Residing in Jerusalem as members of the French Biblical School, the pair’s visit to Madain Saleh (Hegra) in 1907 was facilitated by the then newly established Hejaz Railway, stretching from Damascus to Madinah.

“The existence of trains meant that Jaussen and Savignac were able to take their photographic equipment with them. So, they took the very first images that we have of AlUla,” commented Alsuhaibani. Along with their insightful photographs of life in AlUla, the pair published a seminal, five-volume publication on Middle Eastern archaeology, entitled “Mission Archaeologique en Arabie,” in 1909.

Looking back, the genesis of the Paris-based French Agency for the Development of AlUla (AFALULA) in 2018 has led Saudi Arabia and France to work together in transforming AlUla into a leading tourist destination in the Arab region and the world’s largest living museum by 2035.

Aside from carrying out field excavation plans led by 50 French archaeologists, other goals of AFALULA include conservation training for the young generation of Saudis, building a museum complex, developing a sustainable agriculture and security strategy, and designing a sophisticated hotel complex by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel at the Shaaran Nature Reserve.

“We want to show that people can live in AlUla,” said Alsuhaibani, who obtained his doctorate in the architecture of the Dadan Kingdom at Paris’ Sorbonne University. “The place itself has been inhabited since pre-historic times until this day. AlUla has a past, a present, and a future. We have a land of historical depth and we want to share it with the world.”

Despite the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, AFALULA’s executive chairman, Gerard Mestrallet has assured that the agency’s teams have continuously been in contact during the confinement period, discussing master plans for AlUla. “In just two years, the cooperation between our two countries has become stronger and more asserted,” he stated. “We are pleased with the work that we accomplished, and enthusiastic about meeting the many challenges ahead together.”


Saudi e-learning platform offers a lesson to 10m users worldwide

Mohammed Al-Madani
Updated 1 min 19 sec ago

Saudi e-learning platform offers a lesson to 10m users worldwide

  • While some may know Classera as a Silicon Valley company, many would be surprised to learn that the e-learning platform was developed by a Saudi entrepreneur, Mohammed Al-Madani, now the firm’s CEO

RIYADH: The Saudi Ministry of Education’s decision to introduce remote study in the Kingdom provided a major boost for the Classera educational platform, which now has more than 10 million users worldwide.
But while some may know Classera as a Silicon Valley company, many would be surprised to learn that the e-learning platform was developed by a Saudi entrepreneur, Mohammed Al-Madani, now the firm’s CEO.
Al-Madani told Arab News that the platform’s users, including both teachers and students, have access to powerful and intelligent technologies that help the educational process.
“Classera today is working with more than 30 countries and more than 10 million users. Entire education ministries are using the platform, and we are the biggest market share of private schools in the region,” he said.
The number of users is growing every day. “We don’t serve only schools, we do virtual training with many clients working in corporates or governments. We give them our platform for virtual training to avoid the problems of face-to-face training due to the pandemic.”
Al-Madani and his partner, Muhammed Al-Ashmawi, built the platform with the aim of redefining e-learning, developing integrated virtual schools linking individual education with artificial intelligence and social learning.
“We have different teams from the US where we started and also offices in more than five countries around the world,” he said. “We also have companies that represent us in 30 other countries.”
Al-Madani said that Classera’s engineers worked on the technical side, while e-learning specialists helped education ministries and private schools around the world learn how to utilize the technology.
“Female employees play a big role in our organization. They account for close to 40 percent, and we’re proud of them — they are a key part of our success,” Al-Madani said. Staff come from more than 15 countries, with a mix of nationalities, backgrounds and age groups.
Classera was working remotely before the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We utilized all the software that made us all connected at the same time. We have multiple tools, multiple solutions that actually enabled us to reach a high level of communication. It felt like we’re one team in one place.”
When the outbreak started, the Saudi government did not force private schools to choose a certain platform, he said. Schools have the right to choose which platform suits them. “We believe that’s the right thing to do because each organization has different requirements and needs. And sometimes it’s very hard and not fair to force schools to use a platform that does not meet their needs,” he added. Many schools have customized solutions, he said.
“So, in a country such as Saudi Arabia, we have 80 percent of the A-class private schools. Many of those schools have been working with us for more than seven years. During that time, we customized the system to suit their specific needs.”
Classera has been working in the Middle East and North Africa market for some time. “Luckily, even before the pandemic, we had the biggest market share in the region.” The brand has grown rapidly amid the pandemic, thanks to the trust it had built up.
Al-Madani said that Classera is “prepared for big numbers” and has been dealing with big ministries.
“Our team is working around the clock to overcome these challenges. We want students’ education to be a fulfilling experience.”
Classera launched a free corporate social responsibility initiative, “Learning Never Stops,” shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic. The scheme is open to education authorities and private schools around the world.
The education platform has a total of 60 million page views daily since school resumed and is among the top 10,000 visited websites worldwide.