The Journey Through Time: A master plan for preserving and sustainably developing Saudi Arabia’s ancient AlUla

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A panoramic view of the Dadan District. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), unveiled The Journey Through Time - the latest plan for the region. (Supplied)
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AlUla Old Town district - the Perspectives Galleries. (Supplied)
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The Nabataean Theatre in the Nabataean District. (Supplied)
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The viewing deck in the Jabal Ikmah District. (Supplied)
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The Kingdoms Institute in the Dadan District. (Supplied)
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The Interpretive Center in the Jabal Ikmah District. (Supplied)
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Updated 08 April 2021

The Journey Through Time: A master plan for preserving and sustainably developing Saudi Arabia’s ancient AlUla

  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says The Journey Through Time will “advance our understanding of 200,000 years of heritage”
  • The RCU expects AlUla, once completed, to attract two million visitors every year and create 38,000 new local jobs by 2035

LONDON: Until now few have been privileged to visit the ancient city of Hegra, hewn from the rocks of the Hijaz in northwestern Saudi Arabia over two millennia ago and lost for centuries in the mists of time.

Like its famous twin Petra, some 460 km north in modern-day Jordan, Hegra was created by the Nabataeans, a mysterious people whose Arabian empire of trade flared briefly but brightly more than 2,000 years ago.

But now, as Saudi Arabia increasingly opens its doors to the outside world, the Kingdom is poised to share with that world one of the great forgotten treasures of antiquity.




Nabataean tombs in AlUla. (Supplied)

After more than a decade of one of the most intensive archaeological investigations ever undertaken, Hegra is to be the jewel in the crown of a plan to transform the dramatic landscape and heritage of the AlUla region into a natural and cultural oasis that will once again see visitors from around the world drawn to this important ancient crossroads.

On Wednesday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), unveiled The Journey Through Time, the latest development rooted in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the nation’s future.

Today, we embark on a journey to preserve the world’s largest cultural oasis and advance our understanding of 200,000 years of heritage. The Journey Through Time master plan is a leap forward to sustainably and responsibly develop AlUla, and share our cultural legacy with the world.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Over the next 15 years, AlUla valley, home to Hegra and a multitude of other historical sites, will be transformed into a living museum designed to immerse visitors in 200,000 years of natural and human history.

The Journey Through Time master plan was developed under the leadership of the crown prince and the guidance of Prince Badr, the Saudi minister of culture and governor of the RCU. Amr Al-Madani, CEO of the RCU, told Arab News the master plan has been envisioned “as a way to capture the deep-rooted essence of what AlUla already is — an oasis of unique culture, heritage, nature and community — while curating a timeless legacy with stories of the past to inform the future and open new chapters in AlUla’s unfolding history.”




The Journey Through Time master plan was developed under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) and the guidance of Prince Badr (L), the Saudi minister of culture and governor of the RCU. (AN Photo Ziyad Alarfaj/AFP/File Photos)

Five districts, each focused on a particular heritage site and strung out along the spectacular AlUla valley, will together tell the story of the past two millennia.

The districts will be connected by a 20 km Wadi of Hospitality, a “green pedestrian spine” which, together with a 46 km low-carbon tramline that will connect the five sites to AlUla International Airport, will follow part of the route used for centuries by pilgrims and, in the early part of the 20th century, by the historic Hijaz Railway.

A network of trails snaking through the green valley will also allow visitors to explore on foot, or by bicycle or horse.




The Nabataean District - Hegra Museum. (Supplied)

The Journey Through Time begins in the south of the valley at the Old Town district, the site of an abandoned mudbrick settlement 17 km south of Hegra. The Old Town was occupied until the 1980s, when the occupants abandoned it for the comforts of the newly built modern-day AlUla, a few kilometers to the south. Today it is an intriguing and haunting labyrinthine ghost town.

From AlUla Old Town, visitors will journey north toward District 2, site of the ancient city of Dadan, a predecessor to Hegra. Between 600 and 200 B.C. it flourished as the capital of the mysterious Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, whose fortunes rested on their control of the incense trade routes that passed through the valley.

 

District 3, Jabal Ikmah, an “open-air library” of petroglyphs, will give visitors a first glimpse of the thousands of ancient rock-art sites and inscriptions to be found throughout the valley and beyond.

The next stop on the Journey Through Time will be District 4, The Nabataean Horizon, a cluster of cultural assets mirroring Nabataean architecture and the perfect curtain-raiser for the last and most spectacular of the five districts: The ancient city of Hegra, which in 2007 became Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.




The AlUla low carbon experiential trams. (Supplied)

Hegra is situated on a large plain southeast of the Hijaz Mountains, studded with hills of sandstone, isolated or grouped together to form massifs that have been dramatically sculpted by the northwesterly winds that have blown through the region every spring and early summer since the dawn of time.

The winds have also created strange and evocative shapes, such as the three-storey rock 10 km northeast of the modern town of AlUla, sculpted over millions of years to resemble an elephant.

In the center of the site, once served by the 130 wells driven into the rock that made possible the sprawling oasis that supported the ancient city, is the former residential area. Although very little remains above the surface of buildings that were made in antiquity largely from mud bricks, geophysical surveys have revealed tantalizing evidence of underground structures, while parts of the city wall can still be seen with the naked eye.

But without doubt the stars of Hegra are the necropolises that surround the residential area — cities of the dead, featuring more than 90 monumental tombs carved out of the rocks surrounding and overlooking the former city of the living, and dating from about 1 B.C. to A.D. 75.




The stars of Hegra are the necropolises that surround the residential area — cities of the dead, featuring more than 90 monumental tombs. (Supplied)

Of the four main necropolises, Qasr Al-Bint, home to 31 tombs dated from the year nought to A.D. 58, is the most visually dramatic — both from a distance and up close. The exterior facades of many of the tombs here feature carved monsters, eagles, other small sculpted animals and human faces.

As at Petra, which was also created by the Nabataeans, many of the tombs at Hegra feature spectacular carved facades. However, unlike at Petra, many of the facades also carry dated Nabataean inscriptions, in many cases naming the dead and offering unique insights into the lives of the people who once called Hegra home.

The master plan envisages 15 “cultural assets” that will act as landmarks throughout the five districts. These will include galleries, museums, an oasis living garden and, in a salute to AlUla’s role as a crossroads of ancient trade routes, an incense road market.

Education and the acquisition of knowledge will play a key part in the development. In addition to research centers focused on the ancient sites of Dadan and Jabal Ikmah, a flagship component of the plan is The Kingdoms Institute, a global hub for archaeological knowledge and research dedicated to the cultures and civilizations that have inhabited the area for more than 7,000 years.

An ongoing archaeological survey of the entire 22,000 sq km AlUla region has already identified over 23,000 sites of archaeological interest.

Another key part of the development will be the revival of the Cultural Oasis at the heart of the AlUla valley.

“Through research and innovative solutions from water management to irrigation and land use, the replenishment of the cultural oasis will be a key element of the Journey Through Time master plan,” Al-Madani told Arab News.

“The most intense regeneration efforts will focus on the 9 km heart of the ancient oasis — the ‘green lung’ of AlUla connecting Old Town, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah — and will trigger a major expansion of AlUla’s green and open spaces.”




AlUla - ‘The Cultural Oasis.’ (Supplied)

With the revival of up to 10 million square meters planned, as “a direct response to the challenges of sustainably and responsibly developing a fragile desert environment,” the Journey Through Time master plan will be the world’s largest cultural oasis regeneration project, creating an enchanting haven for visitors and a unique opportunity for sustainable agricultural production.

In addition, 80 percent of AlUla county will be designated as nature reserves, with key flora and fauna to be reintroduced.

Once complete, the RCU expects AlUla to attract two million visitors every year, boosting its goal of contributing SR 120 billion ($32 billion) to the national GDP and creating 38,000 new jobs in the area by 2035.

With a total of 5,000 “hospitality keys” planned as part of an overall target of 9,400 by 2035, many of those jobs will be in tourism and hospitality.

In each of the five districts visitors will be able to choose from a “tailored blend of living and hospitality options,” ranging from hotels and eco-tourism resorts to luxury lodges and “canyon farms” — carved out of the sandstone rocks that once tempted the Nabataeans to settle here.

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

Updated 10 April 2021

Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

  • New film commission will shine a light on Saudi Arabia by attracting international producers

DUBAI: A new regional film commission is launching in Saudi Arabia, Film AlUla, which is being set up by the Royal Commission for AlUla in the northwest region of the country.

Located 1,100 kilometers from Riyadh, AlUla is a place of natural beauty and heritage. It is home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, which is a 52-hectare ancient city.

AlUla is also home to other historical and archaeological sites, including an old town surrounded by an ancient oasis and the Lihyan Kingdom, which is considered one of the most developed cities of the first millennium B.C. in the Arabian Peninsula.

Extreme E, the off-road electric race championship, will hold this year’s inaugural race in AlUla.

Arab News spoke to Stephen Strachan, film commissioner at Film Alula, to learn more.

Give us a little background on AlUla’s new film commission, Film AlUla. 

Film AlUla is a new regional film office, established in 2020 and launched officially earlier this year by the Royal Commission for AlUla at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was met with a positive reaction from both the film industry and international media.

Film AlUla has been tasked with the mission of promoting the county of AlUla as a filming destination and attracting local, regional and international productions to shoot films, TV series, commercials and documentary projects. The Film AlUla team is made up of local and international industry professionals who offer a range of services, expertise and resources to support production projects in AlUla. 

A view of an old town in ALUla surrounded by an ancient oasis. (Supplied)

What is Film AlUla’s objective? 

We have a range of objectives. Firstly, we want to attract production companies to shoot film projects in AlUla so as to showcase this county of outstanding natural beauty and cultural significance, which has, until recently, remained undiscovered by filmmakers and the world at large.  

This in turn will encourage tourists from around the world to visit AlUla, and to discover the region and the rest of the country, in support of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision. Developing our film industry also puts us in a position to shine a spotlight on the wealth of Saudi talent and to provide a platform to champion and support emerging and established creatives here.  

We aim to build a film hub centered in AlUla that generates local and regional employment and educational opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in the film industry.  

What is the investment in the film and production industry in the city?

AlUla has been identified as one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising destinations. We are confident that the stunning landscapes, wide range of diverse locations and millennia-old archaeological sites will attract film productions and make AlUla a major filming destination. Preserving our heritage sites and landscapes remains a priority in AlUla and the sustainable building of our local screen industries.

A robust financial strategy is in place to make the AlUla region the Kingdom’s cultural capital. Archaeological, cultural and touristic complex plans are underway so we can support film productions with world-class infrastructure and a range of accommodation options, from luxury and unique hotels to eco-friendly, desert canyon resorts, designed to raise the profile of AlUla on the international stage.

What are the incentives being offered to producers?

Production companies are encouraged to get in touch with the Film AlUla team directly to discuss our financial incentives. 

Production companies can also benefit from a range of incentives such as free bespoke production support; location scouting; expert knowledge of filming in AlUla and the rest of Saudi Arabia; assistance in sourcing equipment and professional crew locally and regionally; and, of course, year-round sunshine.

With a temperate climate nine months of the year, AlUla presents filmmakers with an uninterrupted extended period of time during which to shoot their productions. 

What are the procedures and guidelines for local and foreign companies to shoot their productions in AlUla?

We are very excited to open AlUla’s doors to film production and share with the world the wealth of beauty, history, and diversity on display here. We welcome all types of production, and as a member of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), we follow best practices as laid out by the AFCI.  

We have a very effective regulatory system in place that is simple and straightforward to ensure production and crew have all the necessary permits in place. Hosted on our website is a Film Production and Location guide that provides a comprehensive overview of all the benefits of choosing AlUla as your production destination. Of course, preserving and protecting our landscape and heritage remain paramount. And, for anyone interested in filming in AlUla, we suggest you reach out to us so we can support you during every step of the process and ensure a successful and enjoyable filming experience.

For more information, please visit filming.experiencealula.com.

Can you comment on the Extreme E races being filmed in AlUla?

We are thrilled to be the first location featured in the inaugural Extreme E five-stop global race next month, designed to highlight the impact of climate change and promote switching to electric vehicles to protect the planet.  

AlUla will make for an extraordinary and thrilling backdrop for the event. And with Extreme E set to be aired around the world, this is the perfect opportunity to capture the attention of global audiences, enabling them to see the majestic, cinematic landscapes and breathtaking natural wonders of the region for themselves.


Who’s Who: Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud, founder and CEO of Mukatafa

Updated 10 April 2021

Who’s Who: Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud, founder and CEO of Mukatafa

Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud is the founder and CEO of Mukatafa.
Mukatafa is a Saudi firm that, according to its website, aims to “build an ecosystem of collaboration between the private and public sectors that empowers Saudi Arabia to grow as a prosperous nation with a sustainable future,” in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030.
Prince Waleed has previously served as CEO for a group of private business initiatives in the Kingdom, vice president of the People and Shared Services department at McDonald’s, Saudi Arabia, and vice president of marketing and business development at NAFA Enterprises, a Saudi holding company.
Prince Waleed is also a member of several business groups, including the Restaurant and Cafes Association (Qoot), the Grocery Store Association (Mo’an), and the Fashion, Jewelry and Beauty Association (ZY).
He sits on the supervisory committee of the Trade Franchise Center at the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority and is on the board of directors at both Alfa Co. for Operation Services and Tamkeen Human Resources. Additionally, he is a member of the advisory committee for investment in the municipal sector and a member of the commercial committee in the Riyadh Chamber.
Prince Waleed holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing, graduating with honors from the University of Tampa in Florida, and a master’s degree in accounting, graduating with honors from King Saud University, Riyadh. He also holds certificates in advanced leadership, strategic management, project management, and human resource management programs.


Islamic Development Bank president receives Chinese envoy to Saudi Arabia

Updated 10 April 2021

Islamic Development Bank president receives Chinese envoy to Saudi Arabia

The president of the Islamic Development Bank, Bandar Hajjar, met in his office the Chinese ambassador to the Kingdom, Chen Wei Cheng, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.
They discussed partnerships between China and the bank, in its member states, in a number of fields, including the transfer of knowledge and expertise, science, innovation, scholarships and laboratories.

Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah prepares for Ramadan amid pandemic

Updated 09 April 2021

Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah prepares for Ramadan amid pandemic

  • Three million bottles of Zamzam water will be distributed to worshipers and visitors during Ramadan
  • Each worshipper will be individually presented with dates and water for Iftar

MADINAH: The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Prophet’s Mosque is intensifying efforts to prepare the mosque ahead of the holy month of Ramadan in line with COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Only people who have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine or have recovered from the virus or have had one shot of a vaccine more than 14 days prior to visiting the mosque may visit or pray in the Rawdah, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
The Rawdah lies between the Sacred Chamber (known as the Prophet’s house), and the Prophet’s Minbar (pulpit).
Each person’s vaccination status will need to be registered on Saudi Arabia’s COVID-19 app, Tawakkalna.
Three million bottles of Zamzam water will be distributed to worshipers and visitors during Ramadan which amounts to 100,000 bottles of water per day, the presidency said.
Each worshipper will be individually presented with dates and water for Iftar and social distancing is to be observed at all times.
Arranging and distributing sahoor meals in the mosque’s courtyards is prohibited, the presidency said.
Itikaf (staying in a mosque for a certain number of days whilst devoting oneself to worship) will be suspended for the second year running due to the pandemic.
Worshippers are also required to use the national parking app “Mawqif” to facilitate their exit from the mosque.
Ramadan 2021 is due to start on either Monday or Tuesday in the Kingdom.


Saudi Arabia calls on people to sight Ramadan crescent on Sunday evening

Updated 09 April 2021

Saudi Arabia calls on people to sight Ramadan crescent on Sunday evening

  • Ramadan 2021 is due to start on either Monday or Tuesday in the Kingdom

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court has called on people in the Kingdom to try and sight the crescent moon signalling the beginning of the month of Ramadan on Sunday evening.
Anyone who sights the crescent, either with the naked eye or with the help of binoculars, should inform the nearest court of the sighting, the court said.
The start of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, follows a 29- or 30-day cycle determined by the cycle of the moon.
Ramadan 2021 is due to start on either Monday or Tuesday in the Kingdom.
Muslims anticipate the end of Shaaban, the month preceding Ramadan, by watching for the absence or presence of the crescent moon, which indicates the continuation of Shaaban or the beginning of Ramadan.