Saudi Arabia raises cultural capital with AlUla

Historical city of AlUla will be turned into a global art destination by famous artists

FOR thousands of years, ancient traders had travelled along AlUla's routes and carved words and pictures on its rocks, leaving evidence of early civilisations. But by 2024, this historical city in Saudi Arabia will also be home to extremely large and ambitious artworks by some of the world's top artists, creating a new kind of legacy for the world.

American superstar James Turrell, whose monumental installations evoke a range of emotions among viewers, will create a series of spaces underneath the desert floor that span several kilometres. The spaces are designed to give you a transcendental experience as you enter one doorway and emerge from another.

A visualisation of Ahmed Mater's underground tunnel and mirage chamber in AlUla. PHOTO: ATHR GALLERY

Ahmed Mater, one of Saudi Arabia's most renowned artists, is building a mysterious tunnel that takes you into an underground chamber. Once you arrive at the centre of this chamber, the very image of you will appear magically like a desert mirage above ground. The illusion is created by light and mirrors - not modern technological devices. 

Manal AlDowayan, a pioneering female artist, will erect a sprawling sculptural complex that pays homage to the mudbrick villages of yore. It will give visitors a sense of life and community in ancient society as they wander through the massive network of structures.

An aerial visualisation of Manal AlDowayan's sprawling sculptural complex inspired by ancient mudbrick villages. PHOTO: MANAL ALDOWAYAN

Other iconic artists such as Agnes Denes and Michael Heizer have also been commissioned by the government's Royal Commission Of AlUla (RCU) to help turn AlUla (pronounced "Al-Oo-La") into a top cultural destination. A 65-square kilometre site has been marked and named Wadi AlFann (meaning "Valley of the Arts"), boasting stunning vistas of craggy buttes and boulders.

Art lovers regularly travel to Bilbao for the Guggenheim museum, Marfa for Chinati art space and Naoshima for its sculptures and museums. Saudi Arabia is betting that art lovers will come from far and wide to see AlUla's magnificent landscape and mammoth art installations.

Ahmed Mater's proposed artwork is a long tunnel that leads you into an underground chamber, which (through light and mirrors) will produce an image of you above ground like a desert mirage. PHOTO: ATHR GALLERY


Since Mohammed Bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince in 2017, he has pushed for numerous reforms to improve the country's international image. Besides advocating for women's rights, he has opened the country up to international tourists and allowed foreign visas to be applied for and issued via the Internet. (Before this, it was hard for casual visitors to obtain tourist visas - visas were mostly granted for religious and business purposes only.)

The young crown prince has taken a personal interest in AlUla. He chairs the RCU, which is part of the overarching Saudi Vision 2030 roadmap to diversify the country's economy through investment in non-oil sectors such as tourism and technology.

AlUla, the new desert art destination in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

At a recent press conference held in AlUla, members of the international press were taken to Wadi AlFann where they had to walk across a large expanse of land to see the location of the works. Turrell's work alone had journalists trekking over a rocky hill to locate where his underground passageway would end. The journalists were then flown in helicopters because the topography of some sites were best seen from the air. 

Words such as "unique", "grand", "epic" and "ambitious" were bandied about by the project organisers, but they did not feel like exaggerations. And though questions on the project costs were consistently deflected, one can easily speculate it to be in the billions.

Art superstar James Turrell is creating a massive series of spaces under the desert floor. PHOTO: FLORIAN HOLZHER

Iwona Blazwick, a well-regarded British art critic and gallerist who talent-spotted Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor early in their careers, chairs the RCU Public Art Expert Panel, which selects the artists for Wadi AlFann. She describes the project as "unprecedented in its ambition… setting a new global example for experiencing art in dialogue with nature".


Saudi Arabia has been testing AlUla's potential as an art destination since 2020 when it invited Desert X to hold its first exhibition outside of the US there. Desert X originated in the Coachella Valley in Southern California where it has had tremendous success drawing tourists to see art in the desert since 2017. 

Its showcase in AlUla did well, drawing thousands of first-time visitors to the little-known city. Many were dazzled not only by AlUla's eye-popping landscape, but also its ancient sites of Dadan and Hegra, Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage Site, which features 110 well-preserved ancient tombs carved into huge boulders. 

AlUla features spectacular ancient structures carved into huge rocks and boulders by the Nabataean people (nomadic Arabs) between 1st century BC and 1st century AD. PHOTO: HELMI YUSOF

Much has been written about Petra, the ancient city in Jordan that boasts extraordinary rock-cut architecture. But the same Nabataean civilisation that built Petra circa 1st century BC also built Hegra. And while Petra draws over 1 million tourists every year, Hegra draws a tiny fraction of that because of Saudi Arabia's previous restrictions on visas - a touristic oversight the country is determined to change. At the last count, more than 27,000 archeological sites have been identified within its borders. 

Artist AlDowayan, who can't wait to debut her work in 2024, says: "There is so much history in these lands that go back 200,000 years. Ever so often, an archeological dig finds new clues to forgotten kingdoms and peoples. These valleys and canyons have sustained countless civilisations over millennia… I hope that my artwork too can offer a certain form of nourishment to those who walk these paths."

AlUla offers many heritage sites, such as the well-preserved Old Town, an ancient city comprising over 900 houses dating back roughly 7 centuries. PHOTO: HELMI YUSOF

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