The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Saudi Arabia’s grand plan takes shape
AlUla and the historic region around it comprise the first completed project in the kingdom’s bid to lure holidaymakers. Sara Wheeler weighs up the merits – and ethics – of going there
Lounging on a carpet on the desert sands of Gharameel, I looked up at the stars. Locustlike insects whirred, invisible. “See?” asked Rawa, my local stargazing guide. “Three ladies following a coffin.”
She pulled a sweater on over her red T-shirt, picked up a laser pointer and traced the night air with its thin beam. The top of the coffin aligned with the North Star. “That light showed the way,” said Rawa, “for desert wanderers: my ancestors.” The three women represented by the stars, she explained, were out to avenge the death of their father, the man in the coffin. “At least,” she said, “they are not there just for being beautiful, like many women in our folk myths.”
In daylight, north-western Saudi Arabia is the colour of persimmons. Phantasmagorical formations of eroded sandstone rear over dunes and plains that dissolve in distant heat. There is no scale here. There is only space. An hour’s drive from Gharameel, the desert reveals ancient footprints. Pre-Islamic Hegra was founded by the Nabataeans, who moved 400 miles south from Petra, in today’s Jordan, in about the 1st century BC to expand their empire. Across the 125acre site, archaeologists have discovered 130 tombs gouged into the cliffs.
The locusts were asleep in the midday sun, and until my guide spoke, I heard only the roaring silence of the desert. Adjohara (meaning “jewel”) stopped outside the tomb of “Lihyan, son of Kuza”. It resembled the facade of a six-storey building, alone and proud, its pedimented entrance dwarfed by four columns. On the top, a staircase led Lihyan to a better world.
“We know this as ‘girls’ mountain’,” said Adjohara at the Jabal Al Banat necropolis. Of more than 30 tombs, 26 belong to women.” The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), which controls Hegra, permits entrance to only one. Women had agency in the Nabataean world. “We know,” said Adjohara, “from images on coins and inscriptions talking about their legal status.”
Three thousand years ago, long before Muslims worshipped here or anywhere, its strategic position on the lucrative frankincense route (“like controlling the oil trade today”) drew thousands of camel caravans to Hegra. By the 2nd or 3rd century BC, AlUla, in the modern province of Medina, had developed into a regional hub.
Hegra, the major historic site of the region, thrived until it fell to the Romans in the 2nd century AD. Desert-dwelling merchants, Nabataeans traded not just frankincense but also peppercorns, ginger, myrrh, ebony, silk and cotton. Besides the north-south axis of the Arabian peninsula, traders voyaged west to Egypt.
At the dawn of the Islamic period, AlUla – in the foothills of the Hijaz Mountains, 600 miles north-west of Riyadh – found itself on the pilgrimage route from the Levant to Mecca. Contemporary AlUla, also known as Wadi al-Qura, has 2.3 million date palms and extensive citrus groves.
The oasis showcases the first completed project in a new Saudi tourism masterplan, within which the RCU, convened in 2017, promotes and protects the AlUla region as Saudi’s premier heritage attraction. In the walled AlUla old town (the word was originally written Al-’Ula, but the commission closed up the spelling – awkwardly, to my mind – as part of its rebranding exercise), tiny white shells twinkled in the walls of 900 closely packed and mostly roofless houses. Desert farmers founded the settlement in the 12th century AD, and their descendants worked the soil until the 1980s, when everyone shifted to the new town.
The old town is now a heritage site. In a boutique hotel, a man pumped bellows over a coal brazier on which he had set a silver-spouted dallah. Coffee etiquette decreed he poured me half a (tiny) cup of his cardamomflavoured brew. “Just a little,” someone explained, “so he can offer you more.”
Does Saudi represent the final frontier of tourism? I felt comfortable, safe and respected. In AlUla, head coverings are not required, though women should use common sense and avoid shorts and sleeveless tops. The women of AlUla, and those visiting from elsewhere in Saudi, appear on the streets in attire ranging from niqab to Gucci. Men and women mix freely in restaurants. The Maraya entertainment complex, with its state-of-the-art 500seat concert hall, was showing Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUla, an exhibition curated by the director of Pittsburgh’s Warhol museum. A female guide talked with gusto about the activities of Warhol’s Factory – some of them, anyway – and swished her long black abaya playfully against cloud-shaped helium balloons.
That said, most Saudis dwell in permanent ethical midnight, with no guiding North Star. In 1957, the British writer Jan Morris, who travelled widely in the region, wrote: “The once proud name of Saud is becoming all but synonymous with intolerance.” Visitors must make their choice: does a holiday constitute collusion? Should one boycott a country on account of a human-rights record as dire as that of China, Egypt or Myanmar? Or will tourism turn out to be, as is naively touted, a regime-softener?
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman established his Royal Commission, he announced that non-religious tourism (not just in AlUla) will account for 10 per cent of GDP by 2030. The as-yet-unbuilt centrepiece of this “Vision 2030”, the Neom resort-city on the Red Sea, is billed as “the world’s most ambitious tourism programme”. The commission is controlled by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, also known as the Public Investment Fund. This body also sponsors Liv Golf, the superleague aiming to establish the kingdom as a golfing destination.
Saudi-watchers interpret both tourism and golf as an attempt at reputation-laundering. I doubt that. If Saudi Arabia really cared what people in the West think, it would cease criminalising homosexuals, and the journalist Jamal Khashoggi would still be alive. Is the regime instead planning economic diversity for the day the oil runs out? I doubt that, too – the black stuff isn’t going to cease gushing any time soon. Tourism simply creates another income stream for the elite. Perhaps they hope Riyadh, or Neom, might rival Dubai as a regional tourism capital.
Whatever the motive, as a participant in Saudi’s ambitious tourism experiment, today’s visitor to the AlUla oasis is presented with the one impressive taster that is actually open for business, with both accommodation and historical sites accepting visitors, as well as a range of accessible restaurants and activities.
As AlUla matures as a destination, luxury brands are arriving. Banyan Tree already operates a 47-villa hotel among the sandstone outcrops of the Ashar Valley in the heart of the oasis; and not far off, Shaden, part of the French Accor group, is currently revamping its accommodation for next season.
One day, I walked in the oasis behind the old town (nobody stops you strolling around). The fragrance of Assyrian plum bushes wafted over gardens planted with cabbages of a bluish hue. Women, all here in burqa or niqab, sat on benches, while children played on swings suspended from palms.
The Habitas resort in the Ashar Valley, where I stayed, consists of 96 chalet-style “pods”. Each has its own electric bike tethered outside, and mine had a Celestron AstroMaster 130 telescope (but no television – hurrah!). Up at the infinity pool, women posed for their Insta feeds in string bikinis, niqab-clad countrywomen sipping watermelon juice a few feet away – the modern equivalent of the camel-and-Cadillac shot. One of California-born Lita Albuquerque’s blue lady sculptures, Najma, sat cross-legged atop a rock, overseeing the bizarre proceedings below.
Habitas’s second location in AlUla is a caravan park, where 25 air-conditioned vintage Airstreams look out onto shimmering red cliffs on one side, and onto a Bedouin-style tent furnished with rugs and carved wooden sofas on the other. Across the two sites, the occupancy is 50 per cent Saudi at the moment.
The commission’s ambitious plans for its nature department include the reintroduction of the critically endangered Arabian leopard. A ranger called Bessam drove me around Sharaan, a newly created reserve half an hour from AlUla (Sharaan currently offers prebooked tours only). “I come from the mountains near here,” Bessam said, threading the outsized Toyota through gullies and secret waterholes before cresting a ridge. “It’s thrilling to see these animals and birds coming back. Sandstone is perfect for ibex, as wolves can’t climb up to eat them.”
On my last morning, I floated over Hegra in a hot-air balloon. I was starting to see patterns in the rock. Saudi’s tourism plans have yet to unfold, and their realisation will be, to an extent, contingent on a radical improvement in the country’s human-rights record. But for the first time, Western tourists can at least glimpse the proud and extraordinary past of these pre-Islamic desert kingdoms of Arabia.
Formations of eroded sandstone rear over plains that dissolve in distant heat. There is no scale here