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AlUla’s Chief Accused of Corruption, Impacting Saudi’s Cultural Transformation

Saudi's ambitious cultural project, AlUla, faces challenges as its CEO is arrested on corruption charges, affecting its international partnerships and development timeline.

Amr al-Madani, the head of Saudi Arabia’s prestigious cultural project, AlUla, was apprehended on corruption charges on January 28. This incident casts a shadow over Saudi’s grand plan to establish AlUla as a global arts and culture hub, part of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030.”

AlUla, a vast expanse of desert and sandstone valleys, houses 30,000 historical sites and is the centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s multibillion-dollar tourism initiative. The region is set to undergo a remarkable transformation, with plans to invest $35 billion to create a “living museum.” A key highlight is the construction of a Saudi branch of the renowned Paris-based Centre Pompidou, slated to open in 2028 or 2029.

However, the arrest of Al-Madani, accused of “abuse of authority and money laundering,” raises concerns about the project’s integrity. He allegedly exploited his position to divert contracts from King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy to a company he co-owned, resulting in personal financial gain. The contracts, worth 206.6 million Saudi riyals ($55.1 million), were reportedly accompanied by undisclosed profits. The investigation also led to the arrest of three of his partners, who have confessed and await trial.

AlUla’s partnership with France, a nation renowned for its cultural heritage, has been instrumental in attracting international interest. In 2018, Prince Mohamed and French President Emmanuel Macron signed a ten-year exclusive agreement, securing France’s consultation on cultural and luxury projects in exchange for €30 million annually. This partnership has enabled AlUla to collaborate with prestigious French institutions, fostering cultural exchange and expertise.

However, progress has been hindered by management changes and alleged dissatisfaction among French diplomatic sources regarding the development pace. Jean-François Charnier, the former scientific director of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla, resigned due to an investigation into the sale of looted Egyptian antiquities to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. His successor, Sophie Makariou, previously led the Musée Guimet in Paris. The agency’s executive chairman, Gérard Mestrallet, was also replaced by Jean-Yves Le Drian, a former defense and foreign affairs minister.

Despite these challenges, AlUla remains committed to its transformative vision. In a letter published by the Art Newspaper, Al-Madani expressed enthusiasm for international collaborations, inviting institutions and businesses to contribute to Saudi’s education, professional training, and economic transformation. The Royal Commission and French Agency have yet to comment on the recent developments.

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