In the heart of a historic Nabatean valley in Saudi Arabia, Pritzker-winning architect Jean Nouvel has been tapped to design a luxury resort. The desert region in question, called Al-Ula, is part of a nature reserve, but the Saudi crown prince is hoping to turn the beautiful desert landscape and its ancient architectural monuments into a vibrant tourist attraction.
While the Nabateans were also the architects of the more well-known city of Petra, al-Ula has avoided the beaten path, until now. The proposed Sharaan resort will layer the sensitive landscape with luxury amenities—5 villas, 40 residential estates, and 25 bedroom suites are expected to be built by 2023, though plans have not yet been released by Nouvel.
“I think that for an architect to build a project on such a site is a rare and wonderful opportunity,” Nouvel said in an article in Arab News. He commented on his unreleased design by saying, “I actually established the relation between history and modernity by using the region’s geographical nature, especially the rocks.”
However, the resort is just the first piece of a mega project the Crown Prince has set in motion for the valley. The project designers, called the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU), do claim to acknowledge a degree of sensitivity to both the environment and existing residents in the area. In addition to the Sharaan, a fund for the protection of the Arab leopard, an international scholarship program, and an open-ended program for the “protectors of the heritage of Al-Ula” are said to be included in the full plan for the valley.
Upon completion, the project is expected to attract up to 2 million visitors to the site. Prince Badr said in a statement, “We are proud to be signing this agreement with a luxury operator who shares our vision of sensitive development that both works with and incorporates the local landscape and culture in a highly sympathetic manner.”
However, as no definitive plans have been released yet, what measures the kingdom is taking to preserve the valley’s environmental integrity are unknown. The resort system is expected to create up to 38,000 jobs, offering new opportunities for nearby residents, but the ancient valley seems poised for a seismic culture shift.