Its bid, Expo Riyadh 2030, focused on the theme "The Era of Change: Together Towards a Forward-Looking Future", was convincing. On Tuesday 28 November, during the 173rd General Assembly of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the Saudi capital was chosen to host the 2030 World Expo, well ahead of its South Korean rivals Busan and Italian Rome in the first round of voting, despite criticism particularly on the issue of human rights. The prestigious event will take place there from 1 October 2030 to 31 March 2031, following Expo 2025 in Osaka, Japan. This is a boon for the ambitious megacity, which is targeting 20 million inhabitants by 2030, compared to 8 million today, and wants to beat the tourism sector to Dubai, where Expo 2020 attracted more than 24 million visitors in six months. The country of Saud grants tourist visas to nationals of 49 countries, including France. This is an opportunity to discover the country's nuggets of art and culture, particularly in Al-Ula and Khaybar, when security returns to the Middle East.
Hegra, the second largest city of the Nabataean Kingdom, in the Al-Ula region of Saudi Arabia. almozinisaleh / stock.adobe.com
It's the new big tourist spot. In the north-west of the Arabian Peninsula, Hegra, the second largest city of the Nabataean kingdom after their capital, Petra, in Jordan, fascinates travellers in love with old stones and vanished civilizations. The rock tombs here are smaller than in Petra, but they are spread over a much larger area and their sudden sight is a pure wonder. These troglodyte masterpieces stand like jewels in the great sandy cirques surrounded by rocky barriers of sandstone and basalt. In the anthropized landscape, we can read a history of the world long before Muhammad while we are in the heart of the Hejaz, in this region that is home to the main holy sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina.
In addition, 218 km south of Al-Ula, about 150 km north of Medina, another stunning archaeological site has recently become accessible to travelers: Khaybar, the lost kingdom of the Jews of Arabia. Fortresses built on rocky peaks and whose jagged walls, still standing, evoke papier-mâché constructions in the middle of an immense volcanic territory and a sea of palm trees. The view from the sky takes your breath away, as you can see thousands of structures in the shape of kites, keyholes, polygons, which punctuate a desert of ochre and yellow sand, all bristling with volcanoes.
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Beauty of geomorphic landscapes
The Jabal al-Fil, the rock of the elephant with its trunk attached to the ground, in the Al-Ula area. instagram.com/_alfil / stock.adobe.com
Erudition is not required. In this rediscovered region of Al-Ula, it is possible to be moved, simply, by the beauty of the geomorphic landscapes. Here, the Jabal al-Fil, the rock of the elephant with its trunk attached to the ground. There, the Rainbow Rock, a fantastic parietal rainbow. Again, the Dancing Rocks, two large rock pillars that seem to dance together. Most travelers discover these sites by 4X4. But since October 1st, you can also experience an aerial tour in a hot air balloon. Better than the very expensive, polluting but possible, helicopter. The experience is offered by Hero Balloon Flights, Saudi Arabia's leading commercial hot air balloon operator, for the modest sum of 250 to 2,500 euros, depending on whether the flight is shared or private.
And then, as if beauty alone were not enough to seduce, "immersive and sensory experiences" are multiplying through an ever-fuller calendar of events, where the art of living is a reason to stay. The "Wellness Festival", a bubble of yoga and meditation in the oasis of Al-Ula, once again infused its philosophy of well-being at the beginning of November. The second edition of the "Ancient Kingdom's Festival", invites you to discover the ancient world, through nocturnal explorations and family manual activities, until December 3rd. Hegra wants to establish itself as an epicenter of creativity, celebrating the fifteenth anniversary as the first Saudi site to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site by inviting, in January 2024, artists, gallerists and designers from all over the world.
Exceptional, upscale hotels
The Habitas al-Ula Hotel, a 5-star retreat of convivial luxury in the Ashar Valley. STANISLAS FAUTRE / Le Figaro Magazine
The hotels in Al-Ula are a reflection of the destination, exceptional and upscale. Some are among the "most beautiful things to see", to experience. Habitas al-Ula, a five-star hideaway of convivial luxury in the Ashar Valley, is one of those rare places to experience in wonder in one of the 96 villas with Bedouin-inspired décor, with its incredible swimming pool in the middle of the desert. We can cry ecological anomaly, but true to its original concept of a "pop-up" hotel, the address is likely to disappear without a trace, the entire construction being intended to be as minimally invasive as possible.
Another folly in these Arabian sands: the marvellous Banyan tree. The hotel stretches out like a village made up of white canvas villas, each with a swimming pool, opposite Maraya, a huge multi-purpose concert hall with a "mirror" façade, its name in Arabic, to reflect Al-Ula's ambitions. The Banyan tree seems like a mirage in the Ashar Valley. And its treasure is the Rock pool, an incredible swimming pool, suspended between two sandstone cliffs. Instagrammable as can be. Amazing!
Jeddah, the next beach destination on the Red Sea
Jeddah is home to superb traditional architecture in its centuries-old neighbourhoods of al-Balad and al-Faisalyah STANISLAS FAUTRE / LE FIGARO MAGAZINE
But it's not just the northwest that's worth the trip. Jeddah, the country's second largest city, wants to establish itself as the next beach destination on the Red Sea. Without waiting, the city is home to superb traditional architecture in its centuries-old districts of Al-Balad and Al-Faisalyah. In the alleys lined with traditional stalls selling all kinds of ouds and incense, you look up at the "rawashin", the coloured wooden mesh balconies that filter the heat and protect from prying eyes.
The incredible energy of the capital, Riyadh
A vast cultural and tourism development plan is re-enchanting the old city of Diriya. Valérie Sasportas/ Le Figaro
Finally, the trip is worth the detour to Riyadh where an incredible energy bathes the capital. In its northwestern suburbs, a vast cultural and tourist development plan is re-enchanting the old city of Diriya, which Riyadh has dethroned. An innovative museum tells the story. A little further on, in the village of Ushaiger, typical of this central region of Nejd, al-Salem, the only private museum in the kingdom, gathers treasures worthy of Ali Baba's cave. There are also very good restaurants that attract the visitor. Soon, we want to believe, we will even make food and wine pairings. Great chefs flock there, coming from France, Italy. New expatriates who appreciate the galloping multiculturalism in the city, boosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) policy of openness. And now also by the World Expo 2030. When the results were announced on 28 November, shouts of joy rang out from the large Saudi delegation. "Weare immensely proud of this result," said Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. It is an expression of the international community's confidence in what we have to offer, and we are committed to meeting expectations.»