Boasting grand rock formations, spectacular ruins and monumental tombs, Saudi Arabia aims to transform Al Ula into one of the world’s top cultural tourism destinations.
Gulf leaders gathered on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia for the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit to sign a breakthrough “solidarity and stability” deal that ended the three-year-long blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies.
Located in the Kingdom’s northwest Medina region, the rich historic backdrop of Al Ula provided the venue for the bloc’s reconciliation – a site that until recently was unknown to the outside world.
An ancient city in the Kingdom’s northwestern Medina region, Al Ula once used to serve as an important crossroads on a vast trading route for spices, incense and textiles between the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
With oases dotting the area, it offered much-needed respite for weary travellers and caravans. 14th-century Arab explorer Ibn Battuta described how pilgrims alighted for four days to rejuvenate and shed extra luggage with locals who were famed for their trustworthiness.
Yielding a wealth of archaeological treasures that tell the story of prehistoric Arabia to the early post-Islamic era, Al Ula boasts spectacular ruins, monumental tombs and awe-inspiring geological formations – all the ingredients to turn Saudi Arabia into a prime tourist destination.
And the government has taken notice: Riyadh views the region as a key part of its 2030 Vision, which aims to build up the Kingdom’s cultural and tourism sectors in a bid to transform its economy and wean itself off hydrocarbons.
In addition to Al Ula’s impressive natural and cultural endowments are contemporary architectural marvels too.
The Maraya building where the summit took place, looks like something out of a sci-fi film.
Maraya – which translates to “mirror” or “reflection” in Arabic – was designed by Italian architects and completed in 2019. The shimmering cuboid was enlisted into the Guinness World Record Books in 2020 as the largest mirror-clad building in the world.
Harmoniously blending into the rugged landscape, the building acts as a 500-person concert hall and is fitted with the latest theatric sound systems.
Archaeological research reveals that sites in Al Ula are over 1 million years old. Recent discoveries point to 200,000 years of human history, with settlements traced back to 5,000 BCE.
One of the main heritage sites is Hegra, where intensive archaeological investigations have commenced for more than a decade.
Established 2,000 years ago by the Nabataean Kingdom, Hegra comprises 111 remarkably well-preserved rocky tombs (94 of which have elaborately carved facades). The main attraction is the necropolis’s largest tomb, Qasr al Farid, or “the lonely castle”.
If Hegra’s monumental sandstone structures look similar to Petra in Jordan, that is because they were both built by the same people, the Nabateans. After Petra, Hegra was their second-largest city, and in 2008 it became Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco heritage site.
Other sites include Dadan, the site of the ancient Lihyanite and Dadanite Kingdoms, and Jabal Ikmah, which is situated in a stunning desert canyon.
Jabal Ikmah is often described as an “open-air library” and is home to over 500 rock inscriptions in the Dandan language, a precursor to Arabic. Thought to date back to the 1st millennium BCE, some Locals referred to the inscriptions as “ancient Saudi twitter” due to the breadth of subjects discussed from politics to religion.
Outside of the heritage sites, the unique rock formations and sand-drifted canyons dotting the vast desert landscape make the region a dream destination for geologists and nature lovers alike.
Erosion and time are the main architects, shaping sandstone rocks into striking forms that could easily pass for art installations, wielding a grandiosity that taps into an atavistic fear.
One of the main restoration projects at the moment is centred on Al Ula’s Old Town. Over 800 years old, the city’s mud-brick settlements existed from the 12th century until the 1980s, when it was finally abandoned.
While the current population of the governorate is just over 5,000, Saudi authorities have drawn up plans to turn the site and its historic walled city into the “world’s largest living museum” that receives two million visitors a year by 2035.
The Winter at Tantora festival, which began in 2018 and spans three months each year, focuses on attracting tourists from all over the world to visit Al Ula.
The festival has hosted some of the world's leading performers from Andrea Bocelli to Omar Khairat, as visitors dwell in luxury trailer cars and dine in pop-up restaurants during their stay.