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Hidden Treasures of Arabia – Saudi’s Unesco sites and beyond…

With the launch of the new tourism visa, for the first time in history travellers from all corners of the world will be invited to explore Saudi Arabia’s unseen gems

Faisal’s Finger outside Riyadh
Faisal’s Finger outside Riyadh | Image: SCTH

Saudi Arabia is a place like no other, a unique country where tradition and modernity walk hand in hand and where the old is not overridden by the new.  It has the allure of magnificent variation, from the ultra-modern to the dawn of time. 

Travellers can transit seamlessly from today to yesterday by heading to an extraordinary beauty hidden in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. Until a few years ago Al-Ula was ignored and abandoned. Very soon it will be taking thousands of visitors to view what will become a rival to Jordan’s magnificent ancient city of Petra. For Al-Ula is a place where the landscape, not the human, is the hero. With its rocky outcrops and evocative carved tombs alongside thousands of relics, Al Ula is a living museum of the ancient Nabataean culture. It is a place where every rock has a shape and every road a history of ancient trade routes. 

Ancient Nabatean tombs at Al-Ula
Ancient Nabatean tombs at Al-Ula | Image: SCTH

The site is now set to be the focus of an exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris, displaying antique artefacts and aerial photography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

In the first event of its kind to be held in Al-Ula, the tombs of Madain Saleh formed a magical backdrop for the inaugural Winter at Tantora festival in December last year. International talent was invited to perform in a mirror-clad concert hall purpose-built by Italian design studio Giò Forma. Opera tenor Andrea Bocelli, joined by a 200-person orchestra and choir, performed at the festival to great acclaim. It goes without saying that this year’s edition is bound to exceed expectations once again.

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Al-Ula is one of five Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia, with an additional 11 sites on the World Heritage List. It is simply one of the most dramatic archaeological spectacles in the Middle East. 

Visitors can shift swiftly from the ancient past into the verdant present by passing into a glorious nearby game park to view animals that would be the envy of any African safari. The opportunity to spot a rare Arabian leopard is on hand at the Sharaan Nature Reserve. Their protection has been enhanced by a $20m partnership launched to support regional conservation initiatives for endangered indigenous species. These include a campaign to prevent the extinction of the critically endangered Arabian leopard, following the successful reintroduction into the area of the Nubian ibex, red-necked ostrich and Arabian mountain gazelle. Preserving the local ecosystem is a priority for Amr Al Madani, chief executive of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU), who has pledged his commitment to help protect and enhance the wildlife.

The largest of the Nabatean tombs, Al-Ula
The largest of the Nabatean tombs, Al-Ula | Image: SCTH

To cater for the increased tourist numbers, distinctive and imaginative development projects are underway, sympathetic to their surroundings. The RCU has commissioned France’s Ateliers Jean Nouvel – the prized architecture firm behind the Louvre in Abu Dhabi and the National Museum in Doha – to design eco-tourism lodges that blend seamlessly into the surrounding desert landscape.

A two-hour flight south will take the traveller to a wholly different setting. Jeddah is a bustling cosmopolitan port city known as “the bride of the Red Sea”. Formerly a key stop on the ancient Silk Road, in the seventh century Jeddah was chosen as the favoured landing point for pilgrims performing the Hajj to Mecca. Parts appear delightfully locked in time, hiding small cafés where men and women sit conversing freely – a novelty since gender segregation laws were loosened two years ago. 

Jeddah Old Town
Jeddah Old Town | Image: SCTH

The labyrinthine streets of Al Balad, Jeddah’s historical district, hide a host of spectacular heritage buildings and traditional souks. One BBC journalist has described the backstreets as his favourite Arab city. 

But Jeddah has also taken a turn in a bold new direction, putting itself at the forefront of the modern Saudi arts scene and cultural renaissance. Art galleries and festivals, such as Jeddah 21,39, attract crowds of visitors to Al Balad. Last June, the country’s first art auction was held by Christie’s in Nassif House, a cultural centre in the heart of the historical district, where $1.3m was raised to support a new heritage museum. 

Diriyah Fort, Riyadh
Diriyah Fort, Riyadh | Image: SCTH

To cap it all, next March Jeddah will host the first-ever international Red Sea Film Festival. With a focus set on nurturing local talent, the event will offer an outstanding programme of Saudi-led feature films, alongside educational workshops and masterclasses. Considering that the kingdom’s first cinema only opened its doors in April 2018, it will mark another historic first for Saudi Arabia – and one not to be missed.

Back in the capital, Ad Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh has grown in reputation for hosting major sporting events. Last year the winding roads that twist around its citadel witnessed a thrilling Formula E Championship race that will return in November.

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More dramatically, in December, Ad Diriyah will host the “Clash of the Dunes”, with Mexican-American champion Andy Ruiz Jr opposing Britain's Anthony Joshua in a heavyweight boxing rematch that could rival the historic Muhammed Ali “Rumble in the Jungle”.

With the new tourism visa, there is much to explore, from the wind-sculpted red dunes of the deserts to the clear, azure waters of the Red Sea and the great jewel of Saudi Arabia’s crown, the Asir region, where breathtaking mountain scenery hides spectacular villages. Now they just remain to be seen by new eyes. 

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