A country four times the size of France, made up almost entirely of desert, Saudi Arabia is reimagining itself as a post-oil tourist destination. With a population of 35 million, and more than 75% aged under thirty-five, the Kingdom is embarking on transformational development to embolden, employ and entertain its populous and attract growing national, regional and international tourism.
The country is halfway through Saudi Vision 2030 – a strategic framework to develop public sector health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism, all while reducing the nation's historical dependence on oil. Led by Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the strategy was launched in 2016 and has made headlines worldwide with the news of the smart city of Neom (more of a region of cities than a single entity) and the extraordinary 175km long The Line megacity structure.
Working on a smaller scale and with greater sensitivity to place and archaeology is the development of AlUla, a desert oasis city near the holy city of Medina in the northwest of the country. Sitting on ancient incense trade routes and a former train line from Damascus bringing pilgrims south to visit Mecca, the area has long been considered the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia's archaeological history.
The ruins of Hegra contain 111 tombs of the Nabataean people, dating back two millennia, made by the creators of Petra in Jordan. The ambition of the Royal Commission for AlUla is twofold: to protect these UNESCO World Heritage Sites, keeping tourism numbers to just 600 a day within the preservation area and keeping the peace and tranquillity of the sacred sites while also attracting tourism at a larger scale to luxury hotels and contemporary sustainable attractions.
Amid this backdrop of transformation, Arts AlUla has been formed to commission site-specific artworks from international and Saudi artists. In 2020 and again last year, Desert X (alternatively held in Coachella, California every other year) saw the installation of incredible sculptures framed by windswept red sandstone cliffs. The area has also seen the building of Maraya – the world's largest mirrored structure, measuring 100m x 100m x 26m. The concert hall lives up to its name, meaning 'mirage' in Arabic, and disappears into the desert landscape, reflecting the surrounding sands and cliffs.
Launched this month, Maraya is hosting the first Andy Warhol exhibition in the wider Gulf region, curated by Patrick Moore, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He has been keen to share the work and ideas of a Pop Art icon many in the West may feel over-familiar with to a new audience.
FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla cleverly plays on the idea that Warhol himself was a mirror of his time. The artist said: "People are always calling me a mirror." The venue could hardly be more fitting. Moore has also been keen to show the origins of social media and selfies so beloved by the Saudi youth that this fascination has been going on since the '60s. Shown in mesmerising three-minute shorts are Warhols' screen tests of figures such as Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, Nico and Lou Reed.
Elsewhere in the vicinity, the Arts AlUla Festival expands to include several artists in residence programmes in AlJadidah, the arts and culture district, supporting creatives at the earlier stages of their careers. A former girls' school in Madrasat Addeera has been converted into a stone carving and traditional arts centre, teaching local young people artisan skills to help them in new possible careers. There is also a vibrant outdoor exhibition of 100 Hundred Arabic Posters, selected from 2,500 submissions showcasing graphic design from the wider Arab world.
It's an exciting time to visit AlUla and witness the developments of the Kingdom in real time. But there will be an even greater incentive over the next couple of years. A neighbouring sand-floored valley, Wadi AlFann, meaning Vallery of the Arts, has been chosen to welcome five contemporary artists. Americans, light artist James Turrell (b. 1943), land artist Michael Heizer (b. 1944) and ecology artist Agnes Denes (b. 1931) are creating epic works alongside younger Saudi pioneers Ahmed Mater (b. 1979) and Manal AlDowayan (b. 1973).
The proposed pieces will captivate an audience through natural light, tunnels, illusion and earthworks. They should be open at the end of 2024. In time a second wave of five artists will be invited to create artworks within the monumental environment of AlUla – an area spanning some 22,500 square kilometres.
Currently, there is just a single direct flight once a week from Paris, but regular connections from around the region mean the attractions are easily accessible. Those coming from Jeddah may wish to consider the first Islamic Arts Biennale – a vast exhibit at the Hajj Terminal, including ancient artefacts and contemporary works exploring the rituals of Islam through purpose-built thematic galleries.
AlUla Arts Festival is currently on show, under the central theme of 'Living in Colour'. Visitors can experience immersive art and follow a trail of curated public art installations across AlJadidah, AlUla's arts district. 'FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla' is open until 16 May at Maraya, and the Islamic Arts Biennale, Jeddah, closes on 23 April.