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How Saudi Arabia’s ancient AlUla region is building for the future

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11 Jan 2021

  1. Amr Al Madani Chief Executive Officer, Al-Ula

• The AlUla region is opening up and diversifying its economy in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme.

• It will build a tourist economy, while improving quality of life for residents.

• AlUla’s development principles emphasize respect for landscape, culture and heritage.

AlUla – a little under 300 kilometres north of Medina in Saudi Arabia – is both less and more than a city: Our largest urban area is a town, and the regional population is only a little over 46,000. Yet the AlUla region extends across 22,561km2 of north-west Saudi Arabia, encompassing deserts, rocky mountains and oases. Our human heritage is as expansive: To date, we have identified numerous archaeological sites covering more than 250,000 years of human history. One site, the Nabataean tombs of Hegra, is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For the past four years, Saudi Arabia has been realising its Vision 2030 reform programme – an ambitious plan to diversify the country’s economy, engage local communities, take pride in our heritage, and open up our society to the world. The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) was set up to develop AlUla in line with these goals: establishing it as a global destination for culture, heritage and history, with tourism powering a diversified local economy.

Thanks to our extraordinary natural landscape and heritage, AlUla is well-placed for this kind of development. Yet it is also a place where people live, work and raise families. Traditionally a rural area with limited urban development and associated utilities and services, it is vital that our development empowers the local community and improves quality of life, respects and conserves AlUla’s natural and human heritage.

Moving forward therefore, our vision for its development – whether real estate, urban regeneration, utilities, or tourism infrastructure – will begin not with bricks, but with principles. These emphasize sustainability and respect for AlUla’s heritage and landscape, and improving the quality of life for our communities through liveable, sustainable and resilient urban regeneration.

On the real estate and development front, we take to heart the principle that we are guests of AlUla’s landscape and heritage, and as such new constructions must stand in respect, harmony and collaboration with what is already here.

To achieve this, we have established the AlUla Design Studio (UDS) to lay down architectural guidelines and offer modular templates for new buildings that draw on vernacular architecture appropriate to the area of AlUla in which the building will stand. For example, buildings close to the Old Town will draw on the traditional architecture and adobe style of its historic buildings. And across AlUla, the colours of the region’s rocks, deserts and plants provide new buildings with their colour palettes. Yet, we are also using modern materials and methods to enhance sustainability and efficiency, integrating heritage with modernity.

This approach gives both an architectural and a psychological integration of heritage and the modern town. The new developments of the urban regeneration project stand in physical harmony with the neighbouring Old Town as modern permutations of traditional forms. Their layouts are also consistent with the social history of Arabia, with residents easily able to delineate public areas for welcoming guests and visitors, from the private, family-only areas. For example, our guidelines organize houses around internal private open spaces – the courtyard – protected from the neighbourhood’s sight, but visible from all the main rooms as a safe playground for children.

These guidelines also ensure that buildings work alongside each other to create a cohesive community with increased walkability, accessibility and liveability through ample public green spaces.

We are also driving forward with tourism infrastructure and capital projects in line with our mission for AlUla. Here we see three different approaches:

Firstly, we are reviving the historic Old Town. Here over 1,000 years of human history are being brought back to life to create a lively neighbourhood of living history. The town’s key buildings are being restored using traditional techniques to show how life was, while new food and beverage outlets, alongside museums, galleries and other amenities will be integrated to attract and educate visitors.

Secondly, we have collaborated closely with international brands such as Aman, Accor, Habitas and Jean Nouvel on resorts that similarly draw inspiration from AlUla’s heritage and landscape. In the case of the Ashar Resort, located within the picturesque eponymous valley, this is seen in the form of traditionally styled tents – albeit with modern conveniences such as wi-fi, flat-screen TVs, air conditioning and spa facilities. Others, such as the Sharaan by Jean Nouvel resort currently in the conceptual stage, go back even further to the rock-carved Nabataean architecture of Hegra to design a resort that sits as a part of the landscape of AlUla itself.

And thirdly, we have statement architecture exemplified by the award-winning Maraya Hall, just outside of AlUla. The largest fully mirrored building in the world, Maraya reflects rather than dominates the landscape around it. What unites these different approaches is a respect for AlUla’s history and heritage, and a desire not to dominate this past, but to become one with it. Through this approach, AlUla will continue to be built by artists to create a new mode of architecture hosted by nature.

Aware of our heritage, we are also looking to the future. The monuments of our ancestors in AlUla have stood for thousands of years. We too must consider our legacy.

Our charter and framework plan contain 12 development principles, which include safeguarding the natural and cultural landscape, sustaining ecosystems and wildlife, and revitalizing, restoring and regenerating the built environment. These are supported by our region-wide planning, which takes into account the unique geographical, infrastructure, landscape and heritage opportunities and constraints of AlUla to support our city and wider development planning. Based on a survey of AlUla’s landscape, the strategy examines four key fundamental priorities for sustainable development that respects AlUla’s natural and human heritage:

1. Environment and heritage safeguarding

2. Sustainable settlement patterns

3. Development, growth and activation

4. Resilient infrastructure

From these, further essential guidelines cover environment, infrastructure, urban form and architecture, and the landscape and public realm.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to support the Future of Real Estate?

While investable real estate has grown by more than 55% since 2012 (PwC), the COVID-19 crisis has underscored weaknesses in relation to human and planetary health along with drastic inequalities, leaving a stark reminder of the influence the built environment has on societies and the vulnerabilities that exist in times of crisis regarding how spaces perform.

Image: PwC

As the real estate industry looks towards recovery, the need for transformation is clear. Portfolios must be rebalanced, and distressed assets repurposed. Technology must be fully embraced, and sustainability and wellness must be at the core of design and operation. The affordable housing crisis that already existed pre COVID-19 must be systemically approached to ensure access to adequate and affordable housing. If the Real Estate industry is to deliver transformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that policy, financing and business solutions are aligned in delivering better buildings and cities.

The World Economic Forum has brought together CEOs from the Real Estate industry to develop a Framework for the Future of Real Estate to help drive the industry’s transition to a healthier, more affordable, resilient and sustainable world.

We are now taking this framework forward through detailed master planning. These are ensuring that the unique landscape of AlUla is protected for the long term, while providing opportunities for our community to live and work amid modern amenities, economic prosperity and sustainable living – now and for generations to come.

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Written by

Amr Al Madani, Chief Executive Officer, Al-Ula

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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