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Visiting AlUla: Inside Saudi Arabia’s mission to revive a dead past

May 16, 2024 at 10:17 pm

Al-Ula is an ancient Arabic oasis city located in Medina Province, Saudi Arabia. [Muhammad Hussein – Middle East Monitor]

Driving along the long road northward from the holy city of Madinah, the shifting of the scenery surrounding me was fascinating. It went from the distinctive black rocky hills and mountains of the Hijaz to the flourishing greenery – brought on by the increased rains in the region in recent months and years – blessing the plains beyond, and then to the oasis town of Khaybar, where the ruins of the old Jewish fortress lay almost untouched, yet tightly guarded and restricted by Saudi special security forces.

It is not until you cross the long path beyond there, though, that your breath is really taken away. Lined by the few odd crumbling Ottoman military outposts and overlooked by the mountains straggled with yellow sand and windswept dunes, this serves as the natural gate to the fabled AlUla.

When you finally reach the outskirts of that old town and its surrounding areas, and you arrive, thankfully – and with an empty tank after the long, desperate, hundred-kilometre last stretch of road with not a single sign of life around – at a newly-constructed petrol station, you come face to face with the nature of the Kingdom’s development in that ancient corner of the country.

Al-Ula is an ancient Arabic oasis city located in Medina Province, Saudi Arabia. [Muhammad Hussein - Middle East Monitor]

Al-Ula is an ancient Arabic oasis city located in Medina Province, Saudi Arabia. [Muhammad Hussein – Middle East Monitor]

Almost every recently-built facility in the area, including the miracle petrol station, consist of the distinct light-red colour and design reflecting the surrounding sandstone rock of the region’s geological structure. It reminds you at every turn that you are in the presence of historical significance, drawing the curious traveller into further exploring it and refusing to let them ignore it. It is as if much of south-east England were to have signs, advertisements and facilities with a grey rocky design to signify the nearby Stonehenge structure.

And it is all part of the Saudi government’s strategy, with the help of Western tourism consultants and marketing agencies, to boost the Gulf state’s tourism industry and allow it to reach beyond the heights of the likes of Egypt, Jordan, Dubai, Greece and Turkiye. While those destinations began their excavations and projects many decades ago, in the last century, however, Saudi Arabia has only just begun, with the historical sites at AlUla having only started excavation works in 2004 due to a project initiated by Riyadh’s King Saud University.

Even then, it was not until over a decade later, in 2017, that the work accelerated at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and his grand Vision 2030, of which tourism plays a major role.

One of the many staff members employed throughout the site by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) – most of whom are local and many of whom are, in fact, women – told me that she had not imagined such development when growing up around AlUla, and I asked her if it was too fast. “Not at all,” she replied, saying it needs to speed up “because it’s bringing life to the area”.

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She was not wrong. Everywhere in AlUla, there was the buzz of newness, with both Saudis and foreign tourists alike flocking to many of the sites such as the old town, the oasis, Dadan, Jabal Ikmah, Hegra and the famous elephant rock. There were limits to what the adventurous, backpacking traveller could indulge in, of course, and there was no shortage of Western tourists, I overheard, asking where they could find real alcoholic beer, but unveiled foreign women and their men in shorts abounded, their marital status was hardly asked about and they evidently found their trips at the very least tolerable.

But under the surface lay one of the apparent faults of the tourism drive in the area, so far: much of the industry is, for now, largely catered to luxury travellers and those who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars per night at a camp. For any solo traveller or backpacker planning to stay the night – as is logical, due to the enormous size of AlUla – they can expect to count on one hand the amount of camps and accommodation likely affordable to them. That differs drastically from the myriad of camps and resorts in the deserts of Jordan and Morocco, where such accommodation can be reserved at even under $10 per night, alongside more expensive and luxurious options.

It may be due to the early developmental stage of AlUla and Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry and the simple lack of competition currently, but that pattern can be seen throughout other parts of the tourist experience there, such as the fact that many key sites advertised by social media influencers – many of whom were invited for that very purpose – are only accessible through reservations and purchasing tickets.

One example is the ‘Maraya’ building in Ashar Valley, layered entirely in reflective glass and acting as a huge mirror blending in with the valley. A visitor either has to buy a ticket to a concert or event being held there, or to reserve a space for a meal in one of its fine dining restaurants. While the cheapest meal reservation is certainly affordable to most – at $40 per seat – it may not be for the budget traveller.

There is also the seeming lack of widespread public transport available for tourists. A car is almost literally essential in the area for those wishing to get around easily between spots, and for travellers with either no driver’s license or on a strict budget, they would have to resort to taxis or – like the bulk of South Asian workers hired in the area – try their hand at hitch-hiking. There are coaches operated by the RCU, but they are limited in their scope and timings.

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Such factors make AlUla and the wider Saudi tourism drive seem like a rather exclusivist initiative, and they could do well to broaden their target audience by catering towards all types of travellers if they wish to reach their ambitious aims. That is, of course, unless the authorities or local camps specifically wish to target only the luxury traveller.

As mentioned before, though, those factors may simply be the result of the early stages and could be learning opportunities for the Kingdom’s budding tourism sector.

Al-Ula is an ancient Arabic oasis city located in Medina Province, Saudi Arabia. [Muhammad Hussein - Middle East Monitor]

Al-Ula is an ancient Arabic oasis city located in Medina Province, Saudi Arabia. [Muhammad Hussein – Middle East Monitor]

It would be wrong to overlook one other potential major hindrance to the AlUla project, although one that is limited to foreign Muslim travellers and domestic Saudi tourists. As one resident in the Kingdom told me afterwards, “I have been twice there [to AlUla]. But since I heard some Hadith on it, I am quite afraid to visit again.”

That  Hadith, or prophetic narration in Islam, that he referred to is the incident in which the Prophet Muhammad and his companions passed by the site of Hegra – or Madain Saleh, one of the most prominent areas surrounding AlUla – on the way back from an expedition, when the Prophet rushed by, fearing the wrath of God which destroyed the Thamudic civilisation and peoples who once inhabited the area and its distinct dwellings carved out of the mountains.

Refusing the food and water of the people there, and ordering his followers not to partake in it, the Prophet was reported to have commanded “Do not enter the ruined dwellings of those who were unjust to themselves unless [you enter while] weeping, lest you should suffer the same punishment as was inflicted upon them.”

While there was a plethora of locals and domestic tourists who seemed not to care for that narration during my stay, and despite any potential future efforts by the Saudi authorities and scholarly class to change its cursed status, it may prove to be a stumbling block for the tourism industry in that area in the near future.

In AlUla, it is hard to escape the gravitas enveloping it. While the rocks and deserts of that north-western region in Saudi Arabia are untouched gems and virgin lands ready for the tourism industry’s taking, they are evidently heavy with the burden of history and eerily haunting in their rocky palaces and windswept dunes. I walked there, sat there, meditated there – and, in doing so, wondered if it was cursed.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.