Al-‘Ula: Transforming the Cursed Land into a Glamorous Tourist Destination

For years, Saudi Arabia relied heavily on oil as its primary source of income. However, fluctuating oil prices prompted the realization of the need for economic diversification. Massive investments were made in various sectors, such as tourism, technology, and manufacturing, aimed at creating new employment opportunities and reducing dependence on oil. All of this is conceptualized within the Vision 2030 project, one of the long-term plans set by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy from oil dependence to a more diverse and innovation-oriented one. This initiative also influences social and cultural reforms in a country where 63 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

As part of Vision 2030, the development of the Al-‘Ula region, an ancient city located in northwestern Saudi Arabia, approximately 380 kilometers north of Madinah, takes center stage. The city is situated in a fertile valley, surrounded by towering sand and rock mountains. Al-‘Ula has been inhabited for thousands of years, dating back to the Neolithic era. From the 5th to the 2nd centuries BCE, it served as the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms, which were dominant political and economic forces in the region. Al-‘Ula is renowned for its numerous breathtaking stone carvings, including tombs, temples, and fortresses. One of the most famous monuments is Hegra, or Mada’in Saleh, the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia. Hegra is a complex of tombs carved in the form of pyramids, towers, and other abstract shapes, built for the nobility and influential figures of the Nabataean Kingdom. Hegra is often referred to as the “Arab Petra” due to its architectural resemblance to Petra in Jordan.

Moreover, Al-‘Ula is home to hundreds of stone inscriptions in various ancient languages such as Aramaic, Dadanitic, Safaitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean—all languages that preceded and eventually influenced the Arabic language. These inscriptions, found in Jabal Ikmah, provide insights into the history and culture of ancient Arabia. Established in the 6th century BCE, Jabal Ikmah served as an oasis along the spice, silk, and luxury goods trade routes. Frankincense was the most famous commodity traded from South Arabia to Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and India during that time.

In Islamic history, Al-‘Ula was also the residence of the Thamud people in the 8th century BCE. Although prosperous, the Thamud were characterized by their arrogance and indulgence in sinful activities such as extravagance, adultery, and intoxication, as well as idol worship. They rejected the teachings of the Prophet Saleh, sent to guide them towards the truth of worshipping the One God. Due to their disobedience, Allah sent punishments in the form of lightning, earthquakes, and the emergence of large stones. The Thamud perished as a consequence of their defiance, a story narrated in the Qur’an in Surah Al-Hijr.

In 630 CE, Prophet Muhammad crossed this city during his journey to the Battle of Tabuk against the Eastern Roman Empire. When he stopped for rest, he refused to drink water from Al-‘Ula and hastened his pace without looking left or right. In Arab mythology, Al-‘Ula is also considered a city inhabited by jinn and evil spirits, a belief strengthened by its remote location.

In recent years, Al-‘Ula has become a popular tourist destination. The Saudi government invested in infrastructure, hotels, and museums. The city offers a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. The development of Al-‘Ula is a crucial agenda item for the Saudi government until 2030 and is part of efforts to transform the Kingdom’s economy. The ancient city is preserved with special care and has become a tourist destination where visitors can explore the labyrinth of abandoned stone and mudbrick houses.

From the 13th to the 20th centuries, Al-‘Ula was inhabited by locals but gradually abandoned as infrastructure and support waned. In 1983, the last family left the ancient city. In addition to Hegra, Jabal Ikmah, and the ancient city, other places now open to visitors in Al-‘Ula include Maraya and Jabal Al-Fil. Maraya is the world’s largest mirrored building, consisting of 350 mirrors forming the walls and ceilings. Located in the midst of the desert, Maraya appears to evaporate into the surrounding sands at certain times, making it an iconic attraction in Al-‘Ula. On the other hand, Jabal Al-Fil is a sandstone mountain shaped like an elephant, located near Hegra, with high historical and cultural value. This mountain was a place of worship in ancient times.

Aside from visiting the mentioned attractions, tourists can also engage in outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and off-road driving. Furthermore, Al-‘Ula offers a variety of traditional Saudi Arabian dishes. Tourists can savor dishes such as jareesh (crushed wheat in a rich tomato sauce), keshna (onions cooked with dried black lemons), gersan (thin flatbread traditionally made by Al-‘Ula women), and muhallebia for dessert using locally grown oranges.

In recent times, Al-‘Ula has also hosted festivals and cultural events, such as the AlUla Arts Festival and the AlUla Winter Festival. Saudi Arabia has also established Wadi AlFann, or the Valley of Arts, as an art park created in the Al-‘Ula desert, symbolizing the proposition that art can transform the world for the better. These projects leverage Western avant-garde architecture and art, involving renowned architects, engineers, and designers.

Al-‘Ula, once considered a cursed land, has now transformed into a glamorous tourist destination with top-notch attractions. The Saudi government’s commitment to the development of Al-‘Ula reflects its dedication to diversifying the economy, preserving cultural heritage, and promoting tourism as a key driver of growth. With its rich history, stunning landscapes, and innovative projects, Al-‘Ula stands as a testament to Saudi Arabia’s determination to embrace change and create a vibrant future.