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AlUla plans Nabataean resort carved into Saudi mountains

Alula Sharaan Unsplash / Anna Sullivan
The Royal Commission for AlUla said it would combine ancient construction techniques and modern engineering methods to build Sharaan
  • Sharaan will include 38 suites
  • $15bn total costs for region
  • Aims to protect ancient carvings

Saudi Arabia is spending around $15 billion on the ancient site of AlUla, including a resort for the super-rich chiselled into the face of its rock formations and mountains. 

AlUla is the site of the pre-Islamic Nabataean kingdom that was based in Jordan’s Petra.

The resort, called Sharaan, will include 38 suites “carved into sandstone mountains”.

The Royal Commission for AlUla said it would use “construction techniques that take the ancient Nabataean practice of creating spaces within rock, and then apply modern engineering methods”.

The commission plans for 5,000 hotel rooms by 2030 and 8,500 by 2035. 

A resort called Azulik on the site will use only electric vehicles and is slated to open in 2027.

The Royal Commission says it will “protect and incorporate nearby ancient rock art inscriptions”. But a research centre called the Kingdoms Institute will apparently be constructed out of mountain faces, according to an official artist’s impression and video. 

The commission did not respond to a request about the costs, but real estate consultancy Knight Frank estimates $4.7 billion of AlUla’s total $15 billion cost will go to such tourism projects, including $1.1 billion for Sharaan. 

Owned by the Public Investment Fund’s AlUla Development, Sharaan has been designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and is being built by French construction firm Bouygues. 

Saudi Arabia is undergoing a massive transition as the PIF manages tourism, residential and infrastructure projects valued at more than $1.25 trillion in a bid to transform its oil-based economy. The plans have run into trouble this year as lower oil prices led to a government budget deficit. 

The government hopes tourism will form 10 percent of GDP by 2030. 

The Sharaan resort will also sit inside a nature reserve where US-based animal conservation group Panthera has been working with the Royal Commission on reintroducing the endangered Arabian leopard, as well as gazelles and ibex.

The government already rents out sites for Hollywood cinema and regional soaps via Film AlUla, and stages twice-yearly dance festivals and hosting high-profile outdoor art installations

With the help of a new airport, AlUla has gone from 146,000 visitors in 2021 to around 250,000 in 2023, according to AlUla’s chief tourism officer Phillip Jones. 

Despite the assurances of respecting the ancient sites, some Saudi commentators are worried. 

“AlUla is one of the taboos now,” said one on condition of anonymity.

“They give the impression they are clean regarding the environment and keeping the mountain outlines intact, but we don’t know what’s behind the image until we get there – how much has been erased or demolished, or cut down.” 

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