Saudi Arabia, Trying to Lure Tourists, Hosts Music Festival Near Ancient Tombs | Modern Society of USA

Saudi Arabia, Trying to Lure Tourists, Hosts Music Festival Near Ancient Tombs

Saudi Arabia, Trying to Lure Tourists, Hosts Music Festival Near Ancient Tombs

AL ULA, Saudi Arabia — The new Italian-designed concert hall in the middle of the desert shimmered in the sunset light, its walls of mirror reflecting the golden sandstone hills and cliffs.

Inside, a symphony orchestra from China rehearsed a Western classical piece, preparing for a concert featuring the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. The serene and lilting notes floated through the empty hall.

The concert was part of a series with performances by Andrea Bocelli, Yanni and Majida El Roumi taking place this winter in Saudi Arabia.

From the western desert, Saudi Arabia appears to be a different country than the one that has been under constant criticism from American politicians and other international officials since last October, when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the 33-year-old de facto ruler, was first accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist.

In developing a tourism industry, officials are focusing on the ancient caravan town of Al Ula in the Hejaz, a western region that has been a crossroads for traders between Mediterranean empires and ports along the Gulf of Aden.

“We call this the place of the future,” said Maher Mazan, a manager at Shaden Resort, a new hotel built among rock canyons outside town, where rooms typically go for $440 per night. “If you come back in one year, it’ll be different.”

The area’s rich history and archaeological sites have long captivated King Salman, the crown prince’s father. In 2017, the king established the Royal Commission for Al Ula, with the goal of preserving the striking rock archaeology, despite its pre-Islamic origins, and drawing more tourists. The commission also began looking at holding a concert series.

“Later, the Romans destroyed the Nabateans,” he said. “Civilizations come, civilizations go. This is life, since the beginning of life.”

Among the tourists was a Chinese-British couple who gaped at the structures and took photographs and video to post to a Chinese travel website. Walking into one tomb, they asked about three burial niches. Mr. al-Anzi said the custom then was to wrap the dead in animal skins and adorn them with jewelry.

Driving out of the area, the tourists noticed abandoned mud-walled homes.

The visitors sometimes meet local residents of Al Ula in a weekend tourist market, next to the mud homes of the ancient quarter. An abandoned fort overlooks the neighborhood. Next to the fort is a large sundial where local residents hold a celebration every winter solstice. They call it the tantora.

The festival “has allowed the people of Al Ula to proudly show their home to the world,” said Abdullah al-Khelawi, the royal commission’s head of economic development. He added that the festival provided seasonal work to 1,000 locals. The headquarters of the royal commission, which runs the festival, are in Riyadh, where 100 full-time employees work.

“This can start a tourism industry,” said a local driver, Saleh al-Bilawi, 25, who had recently studied criminal justice at an American university. “They employ a lot of drivers just for the winter festival alone.”

Mr. al-Bilawi and his colleagues are aware the work is only temporary. Another driver, Faisal, also a university graduate, said he was paid $36 per day and worked only on weekends, but was grateful for the job.

An Italian couple sitting in a restaurant at a farm said they had come to Saudi Arabia at the urging of their friend, the Italian ambassador in Riyadh.

“We want to see the country before it is affected by the Western world and looks the same as everywhere else,” said Cinzia Chiari, dressed in black robes. “I hope the Saudis realize their treasure and beauty is in its distinct heritage.”

Source link