Saudi Arabia Plans To Build An Arts Destination From Scratch In The Desert. The Project’s CEO Has Been Arrested.


Amr al-Madani, the chief executive officer of the Royal Commission of AlUla in Saudi Arabia, was arrested on corruption charges on January 28.

The arrest will be closely watched in the art world, as Saudi Arabia is in the process of fashioning AlUla, a vast cultural project in the country’s northwest region, into a lavish tourist destination.

AlUla is part of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” plan, a multibillion-dollar initiative to develop Saudi Arabia into an international arts and culture destination. His tourism ambitions center around AlUla, a sprawl of desert and sandstone valleys dotted by 30,000 historical sites.

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Saudi Arabia has pledged more than $35 billion over the next six years to transform the region into a “living museum.” Among the initiatives currently in development are a Saudi branch of the Paris-based Centre Pompidou that is expected to open in 2028 or 2029. That museum will be realized in collaboration with the Royal Commission, which already helps to mount an outdoor sculpture biennial called Desert X.

Saudi media reports cite a source at the Kingdom’s anti-corruption authority (Nazaha), who said that Al-Madani is accused of “abuse of authority and money laundering“ while in his role prior to leading AlUla, the vast cultural project in the northwestern region. 

Al-Madani is accused of personally benefiting from contracts given from King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, a scientific research agency, for the company he co-owns. He formally left the company in 2017 to join AlUla, but allegedly retained authority while scheming to obtain contracts from the Royal Commission of AlUla for the company. 

The contracts were worth some 206.6 million Saudi riyals ($55.1 million); he reportedly received a cut of the profits. Saudi media reports say that three of his partners were also arrested. After confessing to the crime, they are now awaiting trial. 

Within the art world, AlUla has gained attention because it has been able to find an international partner in France, a nation rich with museums. In 2018, Prince Mohamed and French President Emmanuel Macron finalized a ten-year exclusive agreement in which France consults on a slew of cultural and luxury projects. Per the deal, €30 million ($32.4 million) will be paid every year over the decade. 

Amr al-Madani, in a letter published by the Art Newspaper, praised the French partnership while also emphasizing that AlUla was eager to work with other foreign cultural bodies: “Institutions and businesses are invited to take part in the kingdom’s transformation by playing a role in the education and professional training of young Saudis, supporting the country’s economic transformation plan, Vision 2030.”

Progress, however, has stuttered in recent years amid management upheavals and reports that French diplomatic sources are displeased with the pace of development. 

Jean-François Charnier, the scientific director of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla, resigned from his post after being indicted in an investigation into the sale of looted Egyptian antiquities to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Charnier has denied all allegations; he was replaced by Sophie Makariou, the former president of the Musée Guimet in Paris. The agency was founded in Paris in 2018 as part of the intergovernmental agreement between France and Saudi Arabia. 

In July 2023, Gérard Mestrallet was replaced as executive chairman of Afalula, the French Agency for AlUla Development, by the former defense and foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. 

The French Agency and Royal Commission did not immediately respond to ARTnews’s request for comment. 



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