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

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 Mohammed 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 people were asked to move after this was designated Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site,” Mr. al-Anzi said, referring to a label given by a United Nations agency.

The timeless and austere wonders of Mada’in Saleh contrast with the luxury trappings of the music festival, Winter at Tantora. As of early February, at least 30,000 people total had attended the festival’s weekend events, officials said. The festival began Dec. 20 and ends Feb. 23, after being extended two weeks.

Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the entertainment piece of Prince Mohammed’s vision “is very large, and constitutes the revolutionary reintroduction of ‘fun’ to a society in which public entertainments have been basically eliminated for decades.”

But because this plan involves exchanges with the West, that creates a conundrum, Mr. Ibish said.

“While you are unleashing socially liberalizing and economically modernizing forces that call on, and appeal to, the West — and which must appeal to the West — you’re trying to contain that with a political crackdown that is completely unacceptable and alienating to most Western audiences,” he said.

Winter weekends at Al Ula revolve around the concerts, held on Fridays. There are sometimes other notable events, like hot-air balloon rides.

On Jan. 31, tourists began flying in for the concert by Mr. Bocelli, who was to perform the next night. Most appeared to be wealthy Saudis, although there were some foreign residents of the country, too.

The few coming from outside had managed to get tourist visas with the royal commission’s help; Saudi Arabia generally does not give out such visas. A good number of the visitors appeared to be guests of the commission, which was paying their way.

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.”

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