Historic tombs, international art and a polo tournament: There are a lot things happening in the desert of Saudia Arabia. Impressions from a country that is not easy to embrace. Heike Blümner traveled to Alula.
The complexity of Sand AND Time
The cliché is live and on air – at least for European antennas: three black limousines made in Germany stand ready on the tarmac at AlUla airport, with their engines purring and their doors flung open as the stairs dock onto the plane from Paris. Waiting beside the cars are the drivers with their white robes fluttering in the sunset who will escort us at walking speed to the AlUla airport building a few metres away, as if in tight formation.
How is it possible to encounter a country without bias – particularly on a flying visit – when it stands for so many things (in terms of Western values at least) that seem as bleak from a distance as the desert night which we roar through a short time later on an empty, smoothly paved motorway?
Probably the best way is with curiosity – and a curiosity that is big enough to match it. Until a few years ago, there was no way to enter Saudi Arabia as a tourist, let alone a female tourist. Now the country wants to open up to the world. Oil is finite, which is why the rulers here now have started to focus on other resources as well: hospitality, the beauty of the landscape and the rich cultural heritage, for example.
The historic tombs of Hegra in Alula are a Unesco World Heritage Site and the first destination in Saudi Arabia to achieve this status
In the northwest of the country, in the province of Medina, lies the AlUla oasis, where a programme to initiate tourism is underway in cooperation with France. The pandemic temporarily put a spanner in the works, but now the signs are pointing to opening up again and travellers are entering a largely untouched area without having to sacrifice any amenities. What’s more:
“This is not a cheap offer. It’s either big or nothing. That’s how it works in Saudi Arabia.”
The man who says this is called Amr Zedan and is the Saudi Polo Federation’s chairman. On a dazzling Friday afternoon, we are sitting on a grandstand in the middle of the desert, overlooking a comparatively small polo field, where two teams of three players each are chasing the ball on their horses in the sand. Together with the Swiss watch manufacturer Richard Mille – who is the title sponsor – the federation has created the AlUla Desert Polo Tournament. Richard Mille’s CEO Peter Harrison made his first contacts with the country and its people early on through a polo-loving Saudi friend and is now particularly pleased to be “present here, where the culture around horses is such a big thing”. Also, the speed with which things are pushed forward is “enormous”.
Playing on sand is different from playing on grass, which is why desert polo follows different rules and involves a funny red plastic ball. In the end, however, it’s about who scores the most goals – as always. Against the spectacular backdrop of the reddish-brown sandstone monoliths rising in the background, a wildly romantic game unfolds, watched by several hundred international spectators. Englishmen, of course, who look a little pale in the glaring sun. Some Americans, visitors from Dubai and, of course, the Saudi upper class, who cheer on their aristocratic young players in the various teams. Among them is the young crowd favourite Prince Salman Bin Mansour, who is competing in Team Saudi together with the Argentine star player Juan Martín Nero against other polo greats such as the Argentine Pablo Mac Donough from Team Richard Mille.
Mac Donough is taking part for the second time and he raves about the setting, the landscape and the unconventional variation of his sport that is offered here. “Here you get a feeling for how the ball has to be hit and how the horses react to it. It’s easier to play that way and a very good introduction to learn about polo.” After all Zedan, the chairman of the Polo Federation, says it is also about young talent, about “making the sport attractive for boys and girls and preparing them for future competitions” in an Arab country where horses are part of the culture. Girls? Involuntarily, one thinks of the 2012 film “The Girl Wadjda”, the first feature film made entirely in Saudi Arabia by director Haifaa Al Mansour, in which an eleven-year-old girl from Riyadh dreams of being allowed to ride a bicycle. And now girls are even supposed to play polo? Yes, says the Saudi Arabian Polo Federation, the portrayal in the film was “not accurate”. It is also about changing this image to the outside world.
The landscape in AlUla provides a less ambigious picture: flat desert with rocky landscapes sanded by the wind into sculptural monuments. The extensive tombs of Hegra were built over 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, who also built Petra in Jordan. There are probably hardly any places in the world today where one can stand face to face with such buildings so undisturbed and as if frozen in time. The desert scenario contrasts with the numerous palm forests in the region. AlUla is rich in water, which is why people have always settled here in the course of history.
Culture is to play an essential role again today.
Right next door to the international polo tournament is the temporary open-air exhibition Desert X, which originated in southern California and is now taking place here for the second time. Fifteen international artists use the spectacular landscape as a backdrop for their installations. Almost all of them deal with the tension between culture and nature – and on this stage the large-scale works unfold an incomparable intensity. It is as if one were entering another planet, where the mirror formations of the Polish artist Alicja Kwade, the concave wooden sculpture of the Saudi Arabian artist Dana Awartani or the Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s waterfall made of golden mosaic stones, which on closer inspection turn out to be pieces of plastic, develop an extraterrestrial attraction.
All these impressions: the nature, the historical sites, the openness to sporting and cultural influences from outside, the obviously male-dominated society, which here in AlUla, however, does not demand any veiling – even of Arab women – make the clichés fragile at least. As always, when you approach something and meet the people, the world no longer appears black and white. In AlUla, however, everything is very old or very new. It not only looks that way, it also feels that way. You want to know what happens next – the curiosity has only grown.