Nearly seven years ago, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, the newly ascended crown prince of Saudi Arabia, then 31, sat relaxed in his palace as he explained on international television his ambitious plan to diversify the Arab economy away from oil. At the center of Saudi Vision 2030, as the plan was dubbed, was a mandate to develop—like its Gulf neighbors the United Arab Emirates—a formidable tourism sector.
“There are very large assets … areas that have not been developed yet, especially in the tourism field, or others,” bin Salman said. “I believe that the size of these assets will be one trillion riyals.”
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Bin Salman’s tourism plan centered around AlUla, a desert region that has been described as an open-air museum for the 30,000 historical sites that dot the landscape, some dating back as far as 7,000 years. The most important is Hegra, the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and a Nabataean wonder of more than 100 tombs carved out of sandstone cliffs. Saudi Arabia is spending more than $35 billion over the next seven years, to turn the region, and Hegra, once a crucial trading post along the Silk Road, into a new kind of international crossroad, an official told Art in America.
The Kingdom hopes to draw over 2 million visitors to the region per year, a tall order for a country that up until a couple years ago allowed visitors only for religious pilgrimages.
France has been at the center of the project almost since the beginning, signing a 10-year, €30 million ($32.4 million) per year deal in 2018 to provide “expertise” in the development of luxury lodging, fine dining, horse-related sporting activities, artistic and cultural exhibitions, and artist residencies. Already, an international airport, a 12-mile greenway and tramline, numerous hotels, and an Arab history museum have opened or are in development.
But contemporary art, set amid AlUla’s ancient ruins and ocher desert canyons, is considered key as a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s much-touted liberalization and growing activity in the art market.
While the development has already seen its share of arts initiatives, it reached a new level in mid-March when France’s premier contemporary art museum, the Centre Pompidou, announced a long-gestating contract to help develop a museum at AlUla. But the project, like France’s greater involvement in AlUla, has left all parties to navigate the delicate politics of a long isolated and repressive kingdom gradually opening to the world.