Saudi music fest seen as lure to heritage trove

The facade of the new concert hall hosting the first "Winter at Tantora" music carnival among the ruins of Al-Ula in north-western Saudi Arabia.
The facade of the new concert hall hosting the first "Winter at Tantora" music carnival among the ruins of Al-Ula in north-western Saudi Arabia.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AL-ULA (Saudi Arabia) • Bathed in light, musicians belt out melodies among pre-Islamic desert ruins in north-western Saudi Arabia, a heritage trove at the centre of efforts to put the reclusive kingdom on the tourism map.

"Winter at Tantora" is the latest music carnival in the Islamic kingdom, where such events were unheard of just two years ago. It is hosted by the Al-Ula governorate, where Nabatean tombs and art are chiselled into caramel-hued rock.

Spread over eight weekends until Feb 9, the main events are held in an auditorium made of mirrored glass that has drawn international artists, including Lebanese singer Majida El Roumi and French classical violinist Renaud Capucon.

And it shines a spotlight on a long-isolated area seen widely as an open-air museum.

"Saudi Arabia is turning a new page," said Mr Zainab al-Kadadi, 29, a Riyadh-based banker. He attended a musical weekend that included a tour of an Ottoman-era train station and sand dune bashing, a sport that involves driving across challenging desert landscapes.

The festival is seen as a soft opening of Al-Ula, an area being touted as the centrepiece of Saudi attractions, as the conservative petro-state prepares to open up to international tourists.

Building a tourism industry from scratch is at the heart of an ambitious government plan to prepare the Arab world's biggest economy for a post-oil era, a mission fraught with challenges. The kingdom forbids alcohol and has a strict social code.

Recent events that drew international censure - notably the gruesome murder last year of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a sweeping crackdown on dissent - appear to have made the challenge more acute.

"Saudi Arabia has great tourism potential but after what happened, it's hard to come here and say 'Everything is wow, everything is amazing'," said a Westerner who was among a group of global social media influencers invited by the kingdom for an all-expenses-paid trip to Al-Ula.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to preserve heritage sites that predate the Prophet Muhammad's life in the seventh century.

The sites have long been neg-lected or vandalised because glorifying them is considered blasphemous by religious conservatives.

With French support in Al-Ula, archaeological teams are undertaking a massive survey of key sites.

Five-star resorts are being planned to accommodate tourists and Al-Ula is expected to fully open up to foreign tourists within three to five years, said an official from the Royal Al-Ula Commission.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2019, with the headline 'Saudi music fest seen as lure to heritage trove'. Print Edition | Subscribe