Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

Located 1,100 kilometers from Riyadh, AlUla is a place of natural beauty and heritage. (Supplied)
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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

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.

Saudi foreign minister condemns Israel over Palestinian evictions, Al-Aqsa Mosque violations

Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi foreign minister condemns Israel over Palestinian evictions, Al-Aqsa Mosque violations

  • Arab League angrily denounces Israel’s ‘excessive force’ in Gaza

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Tuesday condemned Israel’s attempts to evict Palestinians from their homes.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the illegal practices of Israeli forces, especially during Ramadan, represented a flagrant violation of international charters.

His comments came during an emergency session of the Arab League foreign ministerial council to discuss Israeli violations in occupied Palestinian territories.

Prince Faisal said the Kingdom condemned the storming of the Al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli forces, violating the sanctity of worshippers, and attacks against the Palestinian people.

The Saudi foreign minister said the Kingdom “categorically rejects Israel’s plans and measures to evict Palestinians from their homes and impose sovereignty over their land.”

Saudi Arabia also condemned any unilateral measures violating international resolutions and undermining the chances of resuming the peace process.

Prince Faisal said: “The Kingdom stands with the Palestinian people, and supports all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue, enabling the Palestinian people to establish their independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders agreement, with east Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with international resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative”

Saudi Arabia urges the international community to take steps to ensure Israel halts its violations, and to protect the Palestinian people, their sanctities and rights, he added.

The Arab League foreign minister’s council called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to proceed with a criminal investigation into war crimes committed by Israel against Palestinians.

It also called on the court to investigate the displacement of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and other occupied Palestinian areas. 

Weeks of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces flared up to an exchange of fire on Monday between Hamas in Gaza and Israel. The fighting continued on Tuesday, drawing international concern and condemnation of Israel.

The Arab League’s council of foreign minsters approved the formation of a committee comprising of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Qatar, Egypt and Morocco.

The committee will communicate with members of the UN Security Council and other world powers to “urge them to take practical steps to stop the illegal Israeli policies and measures in Jerusalem.”

The foreign ministers strongly condemned the crimes committed by Israeli forces against unarmed Muslim worshipers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which escalated dangerously during Ramadan, and led to hundreds of worshippers being injured and arrested.

The statement also condemned the storming by Israel of Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site, saying that the attacks could ignite a cycle of violence that threatened regional and international security.

The council said it holds Israel responsible for the consequences of these crimes that violate UN resolutions and international law.

The ministers alo strongly condemned campaigns organized by Israeli settlers, and supported by the Israeli army and police, which aim to displace Palestinians from Jerusalem, including the families of the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

The council described the actions as an apartheid ethnic cleansing campaign, sponsored by the Israeli government.

It also strongly condemned the bombing and “excessive force” that deliberately targeted civilians in Gaza where at least 28 Palestinians have been killed. Two Israelis have been killed by rocket fire.

Ramadan’s success story visible in Makkah’s Grand Mosque

Updated 12 May 2021

Ramadan’s success story visible in Makkah’s Grand Mosque

  • Authority tasked with keeping pilgrims safe in holy sites offers glimpse behind the scenes

MAKKAH: Each year, millions of worshippers travel to Saudi Arabia to pray at the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. Keeping these vast crowds safe and provided for is a gargantuan task at the best of times, but the pandemic has added many more layers of preparation.

Saudi Arabia banned international visitors from making the Islamic pilgrimage, or Hajj, in 2020, in a bid to control the coronavirus pandemic. Only a very limited number of people residing in the Kingdom were permitted to take part.

Now that flights have resumed and the Kingdom’s borders have reopened, worshippers are permitted to enter — provided they abide by a strict set of protocols.

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, which is overseeing these protocols, works year-round to improve the experience for visitors and staff.

Hani Haider, the presidency spokesperson, said in a recent statement that “immunization is an essential condition for performing Umrah and praying in the Two Holy Mosques.

“It is the first condition for applicants requesting permits to pray, perform Umrah or visit the Grand Mosque in Makkah. The permits are issued through the Eatmarna app or the Tawakkalna app. Entering the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah requires the Tawakkalna app.

“This applies to immunized people that have received their first dose of the vaccine no less than 14 days prior to their visit, and to people that have completely recovered from a coronavirus infection.

“Three tracks have been designated to the elderly and people with special needs near the holy Kaaba, while six entry points have been dedicated to pilgrims that are being allowed to the Mataf dish as batches through 14 virtual tracks,” he added.

Haider called on pilgrims to follow these tracks in order to ensure the smooth flow of movement, in addition to abiding by the preventive measures put in place to preserve everyone’s safety.

Many of these measures are carefully managed by the presidency’s Technical and Service Affairs Agency. Its staff distribute single-use Zamzam water bottles in the Mataf dish and squares.

They also oversee transport inside the Grand Mosque, organize the entry and exit of visitors, assist people with special needs, and supervise the equipping, disinfecting and perfuming process.

The agency coordinates the movement of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and its squares with a crew of observers to ensure COVID-19 containment measures are respected.

Its staff of 4,000 cleaners disinfect and perfume the Grand Mosque 10 times a day, using more than 60,000 liters of disinfectant and 1,200 liters of air freshener.

More than 70 field teams have also been formed to disinfect the Grand Mosque, its outer squares and bathrooms using carefully selected eco-friendly materials to ensure the safety of visitors.

More than 500 automatic hand sanitizing machines equipped with sensors have been distributed throughout the mosque as part of health precautions.

Meanwhile, the Transport Services Department has raised its readiness to serve visitors to the Grand Mosque by preparing more than 5,000 regular vehicles and 3,000 electric vehicles.

Stickers stressing the importance of social distancing can be found at distribution points, while other signs can found on vehicles to confirm they are disinfected before and after use.

The agency has also recruited more than 100 observers and deployed them at the Grand Mosque’s doors to welcome pilgrims, and guide them to their designated areas.

Authorities have allocated 10 doors for pilgrims, including the King Fahd Gate, Ajyad Gate, Safa Gate, Gate of the Prophet, Bani Shaybah Gate, Al-Marwah Gate, Al-Arqam Gate and Al-Marwah Bridge.

Security personnel are on hand to guide worshippers in case prayer areas become overcrowded.

One of the agency’s most important tasks is monitoring the operational status of all 200 escalators and 14 elevators, overseen by more than 90 Saudi engineers and technicians.

They are also in charge of checking the sound system, which is made up of almost 8,000 speakers, nine microphones for the imam and six microphones for the muezzin.

Additionally, the agency is in charge of conditioning the air in the Grand Mosque’s squares through water-spraying technology, absorbing the thermal energy from the outside air and lowering its temperature.

There are almost 250 spray fans spread across the squares of the Grand Mosque, which are used during prayer times when the Grand Mosque’s squares are full and the temperature is high.

“The state has mobilized all of its human and material capabilities on various aspects, including engineering, technical and services, to ensure the pilgrims’ comfort,” Kamelia bint Mohammed Al-Daadi, assistant secretary for women’s services and administrative affairs, told Arab News.

Her department has launched four initiatives to help improve security and comfort for female visitors.

The first is dubbed “Safe Sanctuary,” which focuses on managing the squares and transport services dedicated to women, providing name-tagged scarves, and raising awareness about preventive measures through a barcode system that displays incorrect behaviors.

Next is “Good Hospitality,” which manages the doors dedicated to women, welcomes pilgrims, guides them, and provides them with services in numerous languages.

The third initiative is centered on cleanliness, focusing on the disinfection of carpets in the Grand Mosque so that female pilgrims can safely and hygienically break their fast and perform Tarawih prayers.

The initiative’s logo is printed on all sanitized equipment and staff have all been trained to operate disinfection machines, and to distribute disinfectants and cleaning tools in female facilities.

Finally, the department’s Women Suqya Zamzam Unit is responsible for distributing water from the Zamzam well in sanitary containers to female pilgrims.

The General Department for Administrative, Planning, Institutional Excellence and Technology has also launched four initiatives to prepare its staff. The first, dubbed “Digital Flashes,” is overseen by the Technology and Electronic Services Unit.

“It consists of preparing and designing educational publications to promote knowledge and develop digital skills, and publishing them through various social media platforms on a daily basis during the holy month of Ramadan,” Al-Daadi said.

Another initiative called “Proficiency” is carried out by the Planning, Institutional Excellence and Quality Unit, and is designed to actively spread the message and vision of the Two Holy Mosques, and hold educational workshops.

The third, named “Rehabilitation,” is carried out by the Services of Temporary Female Workers Unit to provide temporary female staff with a rehabilitation program before the Hajj season begins and to celebrate World Manager’s Day.

“Lastly, the fourth initiative is ‘Enrichment,’ which is carried out by the Women Training Academy,” Al-Daadi said.

“It consists of organizing an awareness-raising forum that builds bridges between the female employees of the Grand Mosque and female pilgrims in order to raise the level of readiness.”


Saudi family of crescent sighters carrying on 100-year-old tradition

Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi family of crescent sighters carrying on 100-year-old tradition

  • Kingdom attaches great importance to scientific process, skill of moon sighting

MAKKAH: When it comes to sighting the new crescent moon, one Saudi family is light years ahead of most.

For more than 100 years, members of the hawk-eyed Al-Barghash family have been spotting the moon each month without the use of telescopes or other modern devices.

The tradition has been passed down through generations of the family from the central Saudi city of Tumair, 140 km northwest of Riyadh.

“This is a gift from God that we enjoy and seek to teach to our children after we have inherited it from our parents and ancestors,” Mutaib Al-Barghash told Arab News.

He said his father and friends used to stand on a watchtower to sight the crescent of Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr, and the month of Dhu Al-Hijjah.

“My father trained me and my brothers on crescent sighting until it became a passion for us. We endeavored to develop the site until it became an observatory that now receives people wishing to train on crescent sighting,” he added. 

He noted that the purpose of training and education in the “art of crescent sighting” was to abide by the words of Prophet Muhammad who instructed Muslims to start fasting on seeing the crescent of Ramadan and stop fasting on seeing the crescent of Shawwal. 


• For more than 100 years, members of the hawk-eyed Al-Barghash family have been spotting the moon each month without the use of telescopes or other modern devices.

•The tradition has been passed down through generations of the family from the central Saudi city of Tumair, 140 km northwest of Riyadh.

Al-Barghash’s grandfather, Ibrahim, was a cleric well-known for his 20/20 vision. “My father Abdulrahman inherited this talent from him. All the family was renowned for its sharp sight.”

He pointed out that he and his brothers were all expert crescent sighters who were only ever hindered by cloudy skies, with climatic conditions sometimes differing between observatories in Tumair, Hautat Sudair, and Shaqra.

Located on mountain plateaus, he said these were the three best places to spot the crescent moon because of their clear skies. “We have been climbing that plateau monthly for 16 years to sight the crescent of each month,” he added.

On the prospect of technology making the role of crescent sighters redundant, Al-Barghash said that the old and new ways complemented each other.

“Our sons accompany us each month to understand the science and comprehend it properly. We are also training more than five people at Tumair observatory to be the sighters of the future,” he added. 

Mutaib Al-Barghash

Saudi Arabia attaches great importance to the process of crescent sighting and its Supreme Court ensures the reliability of sighters using several criteria, most notably a comprehensive medical examination and eye tests. Results are then submitted to a special committee affiliated to the Ministry of Justice and accredited by royal decree.

Minister of Justice Dr. Walid Al-Samaani follows up on the work of the committee.

Judges are assigned to accompany sighters at observatories throughout the Kingdom and are supervised by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) with the participation of specialists in crescent sighting and astronomy, along with representatives of government agencies.

Astronomers are now using computers in crescent sighting to accurately determine variables.

Zaki bin Abdulrahman Al-Mustafa, KACST professor

Suitable observatory sites are selected according to geographic, scientific, and astronomic criteria. KACST’s astronomical observatories are equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, telescopes, binoculars, and thermal cameras to sight the crescents and are linked to the Supreme Court via live video broadcasts.

The Supreme Court closely follows the process of crescent sighting, examining the astronomical and mathematical reports issued by government agencies on the moon’s movements, and weather conditions in each monitoring area.

Sighters are interrogated by the committee to verify the validity of their sighting before an announcement is made.

Zaki bin Abdulrahman Al-Mustafa, professor of astronomy at KACST’s National Center for Astronomy and Navigation, said astronomers were now using computers in crescent sighting to accurately determine variables such as sunrise, sunset, moonset, sunrise and sunset positions, angles between the sun, the intensity of its illumination, and the crescent path in the sky.

The center is a world leader in the field of crescent sighting and has published many scientific papers in trade magazines while annually producing a booklet of related data. Al-Mustafa and his team were able to sight the crescent several times in broad daylight with high-sensitivity cameras and tracked the moon until sunset.

The team obtained two patents for the scientific milestone, and work is underway to develop the technique for sighting in difficult climatic conditions, such as clouds and dust, by designing special filters.

Saudi king, crown prince register as organ donors

Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi king, crown prince register as organ donors

  • The donor program is part of the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation
  • Governors, other high officials also register, following the king's example

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have registered in an organ donor program as a humanitarian gesture, Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday.

“This unsurprising gesture comes within the framework of the great care that patients with final organ failure receive from the king and the crown prince, and as encouragement from the leadership for all citizens and residents to register in the organ donation program,” the statement said.

The donor program, part of the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation, is of “great importance because it gives hope to patients whose lives depend on new organ transplants.”

King Salman worked to establish the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation — formerly known as the National Center for Kidney Transplantation — to ease the suffering of the increasing number of patients with kidney failure.

The circle of organ donation was then expanded to include all patients with final organ failure, and to bring hope to patients on waiting lists, whose recovery depends on new organs, such as hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs and others.

“The king and crown prince’s initiative to register in the organ donor program constitutes a caring, patriarchal gesture toward patients in the end stages of organ failure, as well as one of the most important forms of solidarity known to Saudi society,” the statement said.

It also comes as support for enhancing public health levels, increasing the efficiency of the medical sector in conducting these complex operations, and contributing In raising its success rates in the future.

Taking the cue, other high officials also joined the organ donation program.

Among those who registered, according to SPA, were Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, governor of the Eastern Region; Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, governor of the Northern Borders Region; Prince Dr. Hussam bin Saud bin Abdulaziz, governor of Al-Baha; and Prince Faisal bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz, governor of Al-Jouf.



Saudi Arabia launches Eid aid projects in various countries

Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi Arabia launches Eid aid projects in various countries

  • The project will benefit 294,000 people and help them join in the celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr

JEDDAH: As the Eid Al-Fitr celebrations are about to begin all across the world, the Kingdom is expediting its efforts to ensure that all Muslims join their brethren in the festivities by launching special aid programs.

The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) distributed Eid clothes among orphans of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in different parts of Lebanon. The program benefited 6,548 children, which also included members of the host community.

The aid packages to the cities of Tripoli, Zahle, and Dbayeh, east of the Lebanese capital Beirut, form part of the center’s project to provide Eid clothes for children.

KSrelief on Tuesday launched a project to distribute 6,876 cartons of dates weighing 55 tons to support Jordanians, Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

Saud bin Abdul Aziz Al-Hazim, KSrelief director in Jordan, said the center distributes the aid in cooperation with the Jordanian Hashemite Charitable Organization.

In Yemen, KSrelief launched its special Eid aid program in Al-Mahrah governorate. It is part of the center’s project to benefit 42,000 families in nine governorates including Aden, Abyan, Lahj, Al-Dhale’e, Hadramout, Shabwah, Marib, and Taiz.

The project will benefit 294,000 people and help them join in the celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr.


• KSrelief distributed Eid clothes among 6,548 children in Lebanon.

• The center’s Eid program will benefit 294,000 people in Yemen.

• The center distributed 14,351 bags of rice weighing 21 kg each among 86,106 individuals in different parts of Pakistan.

• KSrelief launched a project to distribute 6,876 cartons of dates in Jordan.

The center distributed 14,351 bags of rice weighing 21 kg each among 86,106 individuals in different parts of Pakistan including Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Khanewal, Sahiwal, Dera Ismail Khan, and Lower Dir.

Pakistan’s Communications Minister Murad Saeed thanked King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the humanitarian support extended to the Pakistani people and other countries.

He praised the work of the center and lauded its “dedication” in selecting beneficiaries and the overall distribution process.

KSrelief has implemented 1,556 projects worth more than $5 billion in 59 countries. The initiatives have been carried out in cooperation with 144 local, regional and international partners since the inception of the center in May 2015.

According to a recent KSrelief report, the countries and territories that benefited the most from the center’s various projects were Yemen ($3.53 billion), Palestine ($363 million), Syria ($305 million), and Somalia ($203 million).