Advertisement

From a 100-mile city to a desert ski resort: why is Saudi Arabia spending billions on architectural ‘gigaprojects’?

“We think we can help change the situation here,” says Iwona Blazwick, who for 21 years was director of the Whitechapel art gallery in London, “particularly for women.” She’s wearing, like many westerners working in Saudi Arabia, a stylish version of the abaya, the traditional garment that extends to ankles, wrists and neck, but with her head uncovered. Around us is the profligate splendour of the cliffs and pillars of the local geology, not lunar or Martian but from some stranger planet, its bare wind-carved forms suggesting beasts and faces. We’re in the north-western region of AlUla, at the two-year-old Habitas resort, where 96 luxury cabins, each containing one bedroom, are scattered across an arid but spectacular valley like a high-end, low-density trailer park. A succession of influencers, posing in front of tripod-mounted phones, bring a Triangle of Sadness vibe to the infinity pool. It’s not the Saudi Arabia of the popular imagination.

Blazwick has been a leading force in British art over the past three decades: in 1992, she gave Damien Hirst his first major public London show, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and she played a significant role in the creation of Tate Modern. She is now overseeing Wadi AlFann, or Valley of the Arts, a park of land art to be made out of 65 sq kilometres (25 sq miles) of AlUla’s scenic desert. Here three venerable giants of the genre, Agnes Denes, James Turrell and Michael Heizer, with the Saudi artists Manal AlDowayan and Ahmed Mater, are planning to carve and build their large creations out of the rock and sand. It will take to the limit the proposition that art can change the world for the better.

It is one part of a grand image-building project – perhaps the biggest the world has ever seen – by the 38-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia since 2017 and de facto ruler. The Wadi AlFann is on a wide spectrum that includes Neom, the region in another part of the north-west where a 170km-long (100 miles) city known as The Line is planned, plus the ski resort of Trojena and the floating port and industrial city of Oxagon. Other “gigaprojects”, as they are collectively known, include the “world destination” of Jeddah Central, 5.7million sq metres of waterfront development featuring an opera house, a stadium, an oceanarium and a museum. In the capital of Riyadh, a brigade of cranes is building Diriyah Gate, a $63.2bn (£50bn) “iconic lifestyle destination” and “sustainable landmark”, with 41 “world-class” hotels, homes for 100,000 residents and 26 cultural attractions, also with a golf course and equestrian centre, around the Unesco-listed mud-brick city of At-Turaif.

All are visible manifestations of Vision 2030, a programme of investment and influence, paid for with the help of the $778bn of sovereign wealth in the Saudi Public Investment Fund, that seeks to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. Perhaps the most consequential part of Vision 2030 is the reform of some of the extreme oppressions of Saudi Arabia’s recent theocratic rule. Women can now drive cars where they could not before, and take jobs from which they were excluded. Going to cinemas and the playing of music in public, previously banned, are now permitted. The religious police, who used to go around instructing everyone to go to prayer and women to cover themselves, have been curtailed.

The gigaprojects also serve to launder Prince Mohammed’s reputation, and here there is a lot of cleaning-up to be done. He is responsible for the Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen, wherein many thousands of civilians have been killed by bombings and starvation, and this is a country where you can be sentenced to death for some tweets. Decades-long prison sentences are handed down for mild criticism of the regime. Prince Mohammed reportedly set up a death squad to assassinate dissidents. The murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 is only the best known of the atrocities committed by the prince’s regime.

So MBS, as Prince Mohammed is often called, operates with a combination of soft and extremely hard power. He aims to create what Dr David Wearing, lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex, calls “a spectacle of reform”. He doesn’t just want to look powerful, he also wants to look cool. His audience is domestic as well as international, especially the potentially rebellious youth of a country where 63% of the population are under 30. To them, Wearing says, he needs to “sell a story of change”.

The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on culture and construction seek not only to create works of unprecedented cale, but also draw on the imagery of western – especially British – avant-garde architecture and art from the past several decades. Fantastical concepts dreamed up in London colleges in the 1960s and 70s are now proposed as places that can be built and inhabited. Many of the architects, engineers, designers and curators who helped create the look of the Blair era are busy in Saudi. There’s a planned mountaintop skyscraper in Trojena by Zaha Hadid Architects, high-speed rail stations and airports by Foster + Partners, a museum made out of an old desalination plant in Jeddah Central by Heatherwick Studio. The not so avant garde architectural agitator who is now King Charles III is also indirectly involved.

The best known of Prince Mohammed’s grand projects is The Line, the proposed city of 9 million inhabitants housed within two mirror-clad walls, 105-mile (170km) long, 200 metre-wide and 500 metre-high, supertall buildings stretching without interruption or variation from the Red Sea into the desert. It is, conceptually speaking, the Great Wall of China multiplied by the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Thanks to the magic of CGI, social media and its own audacity, it is world famous before it is built.

In the spaces between its sleek flanks are proposed piled-up phantasmagoria of hanging gardens and lakes and flying megastructures. Multiple architects and designers have been involved, including Olivier Pron, the French special effects artist for Guardians of the Galaxy and Cloud Atlas, and the Pritzker prize winners Morphosis and OMA, respectively from Los Angeles and Rotterdam. Some have been assigned the task of designing 800m-long stretches in greater detail. One of these is Sir Peter Cook RA, alumnus of the Architectural Association in London, who has been energising the world of architecture with his colourful images of big free-form structures of open-ended use since he was part of the Archigram group in the 1960s. At the age of 87 he finds himself working on a project that looks, superficially at least, like those visions from long ago.

A wearer of floral shirts and big round glasses, Cook comes across as congenial and artistic, a romantic frustrated by his home country, where he “feels culturally surrounded by nervous pragmatism”. The attraction of The Line, he tells me when we meet in his north London studio, was “the optimism and delight of the proposition… because its pitch is heroic there is an onus upon you to sustain that heroism”. He’s also “flattered and delighted to be involved with a peer group of considerable quality”.

His designs combine megalomaniac scale with whimsy. “What happens if we make it a bit naughty?” he asked in a documentary on The Line aired earlier this year on the Discovery Channel. “You need to build quite a lot of nooks and crannies,” he tells me. He proposes treating the inner faces of The Line’s flank walls as “an A side and a B side”, by which he means that one is relatively plain and orderly, the other a chaos of pods and projections and hovering modules and terraces. He wants to throw multistorey inhabited bridges across the chasm between the two sides, that would be “venues in themselves”.

One architect speculates The Line will be ‘a Noah’s Ark for the happy few’. More likely, it will never be completed

The Line seems to be a favourite of Prince Mohammed’s. He tells the documentary-makers how one practice (Morphosis) proposed a linear city 2km wide and he credits himself with the idea of narrowing it and pushing up its height. He expounds how the project will create “new ways of building cities and new ways of living”. He’s an avowed lover of video games, and the shining, intricate, infinitely receding perspectives of The Line look like works of a gamer’s imagination.

The project, it also has to be said, makes no sense. The long thin shape, hailed as “innovative”, would create problems of circulation and connection that you don’t get in the roughly circular form that most cities take. It’s like reinventing the wheel in the shape of a stick. As with some of the other gigaprojects, its claims to be “sustainable” are hollow. Its prodigious consumption of steel, concrete and water could only incur a huge bill of carbon emissions, energy consumption and environmental damage. The immense impermeable barrier it would create to wildlife and wind would mock official claims that it is “designed to protect and enhance nature”.

Conceivably, as one architect speculates, The Line will be “a Noah’s Ark for the happy few”, a privileged AI-controlled citadel set in an inhospitable desert. Otherwise it will be clickbait visible from space, two vast and pointless lines of glass whose colossal construction cost would defeat the Vision 2030 plan to reduce dependency on oil revenues. What’s more likely is that it will never be completed. While fleets of diggers are already scratching trenches out of the desert, with a view to building the first phase by 2030, no schedule has been announced for the remainder.

***

The work in AlUla, the geologically astounding place where I meet Blazwick, is less futuristic than The Line, and more thoughtful. This is an area the size of Belgium, but with a population no bigger than the Hampshire town of Andover, which includes as well as its desert scenery a large oasis and the Unesco world heritage site of Hegra. Here are 111 tombs cut from the rocks by the Nabateans, the people who also created Petra in Jordan, their cornices and mouldings miraculously sharp two millennia on. Until recently AlUla was impoverished, little known and cut off, as the Saudi theocracy had no wish to draw attention to the area’s pre-Islamic monuments.

Maraya concert hall in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.
Maraya concert hall in AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

An early act of Prince Mohammed’s rule, in a rebuff to religious hardliners, was to open up this taboo place to archaeologists and tourists. A royal commission for AlUla was set up, which drew up a master plan, under the guidance of Dr Khaled Azzam, director of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in London. Called Journey Through Time, the plan aims to achieve “harmonious coexistence between nature and humankind”, “preservation of the cultural legacy” and “sustainable economic growth”. Which turns out to mean, among other things, more tourism and less agriculture.

Traditional mud-built houses in the old part of the area’s main town, also called AlUla, have been restored as a row of craft shops. There’s a pop-up branch of Harvey Nichols. There’s the Madrasat Addeera, an old girls’ school now dedicated to teaching traditional crafts, in workshops run by a charity founded by King Charles in 2006, Turquoise Mountain. A contemporary art museum is planned, curated by Blazwick and designed by Lina Ghotmeh, the French-Lebanese architect of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London. A museum of the Incense Road, the trade route that once brought wealth to this region, is being designed by the British architect Asif Khan.

Some works of contemporary art are already there, in anticipation of Wadi AlFann’s planned opening in 2026. In the old town there’s an Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama, the ubiquitous artist on show this year in the UK at Tate Modern in London and the Aviva Studios in Manchester. In 2022, an edition of Desert X was held in AlUla, the recurring exhibition of site-specific installations that started in the Coachella Valley, California in 2017. Some pieces remain around the Habitas hotel – for example a scattering of coloured rounded rocks by the Emirati artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, called Falling Stones Garden. Desert X will come back here next year.

Some distance from the town, out of sync with the Journey Through Time theme of respectful restoration, stands the largest mirror-covered building in the world – a glimpse of what The Line might be – a 500-seat concert hall called Maraya that has twice drawn Alicia Keys to perform in its improbably isolated desert spot. This dusty, quiet locality, in other words, is being turned into a glamorous destination. Last month, it was honoured by a visit from Kanye West, who came with his entourage to record his next music project in what Grazia magazine called AlUla’s “luxurious transcending space”.

For Blazwick, the endeavour is about more than glamour. “I had enormous misgivings,” she says of the first time she was invited to Saudi, “but I thought, OK, let me suspend my anxieties and prejudice and come.” She was attracted by the “mythic” landscape and by the chance of being in on the beginning of something, as she was at Tate Modern: “That experience of shaping something that didn’t exist – irresistible!” She also believed that she could do good: “I hope that, with the presence of art, there will be a wider sense of tolerance and acceptance of new ideas.”

She sees several benefits: employment that would stop the local youth from leaving; social and environmental progress. “It was politically important for me as a feminist to have the same resources and the same status given to Manal AlDowayan, a quite young female artist who is not terribly well known outside Saudi, as for James Turrell who is world renowned. That’s a hugely important message.” The commissions in AlUla, she says, “shift the geopolitical axis of the art world, which for too long has been fixated on western art and the global north.” She hopes that the architectural projects will be a “laboratory” for building for rising temperatures.

***

During my time in AlUla and Riyadh I hear much praise for Prince Mohammed. “The leadership that he has demonstrated is phenomenal,” I am told by a British businessman with long experience of the region. He admires the way the prince has centralised previously fragmented power structures, and marginalised religious extremists and rivals within the extended royal family. “For the young people,” Blazwick tells me, “he’s a rock star.” A Riyadh architect says her children love the gamer’s mind they can see in the Neom plans, as they feel it makes him one of them.

He has certainly changed things. Last month the airport and the city of Riyadh were full of billboards for the 2023 Saudi Games, featuring a female weightlifter and archer. Boulevard City, a four-year-old retail and entertainment development modelled on Times Square, is thronged at night with citizens, including unaccompanied and sometimes bare-headed women, plainly enjoying their new freedom to eat and socialise in outdoor places. “My Saudi colleagues,” says Blazwick, “are embracing these opportunities with such passion. It’s really been history in the making for them.”

For those involved… the question is at what point their work contributes to human rights violations

I also hear excuses for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi: that those who carried it out have been brought to justice, that maybe he was involved in dark deeds, that it’s unfair to judge a country by this one act. The expat businessman sees the Yemen intervention as the sort of mistake that someone as young and bold as Prince Mohammed will inevitably make, part of the price of his achievements. Killing Khashoggi, he says, was “a massive fuck-up. Bin Salman broke the 11th commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.” For Blazwick, it’s a “question of evolution not revolution – how they can change that very punitive culture is really going to be shaped by the young people.”

In these readings, the prince’s brutalities are a bug and not a feature, but their multiple and ongoing nature suggests otherwise. One person who will not get to experience what Prince Mohammed calls Neom’s “new ways of living” is Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, who was killed by Saudi government special forces in April 2020. Also unlikely to enjoy The Line’s hanging gardens is Huwaiti’s brother Shadli. He, as reported by the human rights campaign group ALQST, is one of at least five members of the Huwaitat tribe sentenced to death under Saudi counter-terrorism laws, alongside at least 15 given prison sentences ranging from 15 to 50 years. Their and Abdul’s crime was to protest against the forced removal of their people from the area where Neom is to be built and the demolition of their homes.

The practice of mass eviction is not confined to Neom – the creation of Jeddah Central required the clearance of large numbers of people, often with minimal or no notice or compensation. Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf states, also has an appalling record on the treatment of the migrant workers who build their monuments, who often have to work long and hard in extreme levels of heat and humidity. Lina al-Hathloul of ALQST, whose sister Loujain was imprisoned for nearly three years for her opposition to the now-lifted driving ban on women, is sceptical about the claims of reform. “If you go there today you will see change, but the thing is how sustainable is it, how true and profound?” This, she says, is still a country where “policemen can arrest people for not being decent enough”.

According to an article by the author and former diplomat Arthur Snell, Prince Mohammed’s foreign policy adventures have been a succession of disasters. He is, in this view, not a master strategist but an overgrown spoilt teenager with an excessive love of video games, the “simplistic violence” of which is, for Snell, “easily discernible in his approach to governance”. In relation to this, Cook’s “naughtiness” and Blazwick’s “wider sense of tolerance” look like flimsy defences.

The gigaprojects then, along with the arts and heritage programmes, are part of a process that brings cultural change, while enforcing the political status quo. They are also happening because Prince Mohammed likes them. If The Line looks like a pharaonic ego trip, Dr Azzam also reports the prince’s interest in the AlUla masterplan, and in such subtler things as the palette of pigments made in the Madrasat Addeera out of multicoloured local rocks. Like many works dictated from above these projects have an erratic relationship to reality and consistency: while The Line verges on the unhinged, it’s also questionable whether five major works of land art plus several museums are best located in AlUla, whose small population and remote location will struggle to handle large visitor numbers. The profligate construction of the gigaprojects, and in some cases the dependency on planes and cars to get to places, will – despite Vision 2030’s claims of sustainability – have a huge and destructive environmental impact.

For those involved – creative, cultured, humane, intelligent people as they mostly are – the question is at what point their work contributes to human rights violations. In Neom, Jeddah Central and other projects, abuses are not just unfortunate background events – the construction sites for the new buildings are themselves crime scenes. In AlUla too there have been evictions. I’m told, but I’m unable to verify this, that those affected are mostly happy with the compensation they received.

One European architect working in Saudi Arabia makes a distinction between commissions that bring long-lasting benefits to the Saudi people, which he will accept, and those whose main purpose is to glorify Prince Mohammed, which he will not. Lina al-Hathloul doesn’t think that a blanket boycott of all Saudi projects is the answer, but she believes that companies working in the country have a duty to speak out. “When we are all the same room and when there’s a fire, it’s everyone’s responsibility to try to put it out,” she says. This seems right. The trouble is, I didn’t find anyone working in Saudi Arabia who was inclined to do that.

Rowan Moore’s visit to AlUla was funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla