CEO of AlUla Heritage and Culture Project Arrested for Corruption
By Camilla Alvarez-Chow
On January 29, the chief executive officer of Saudi Arabia’s vast cultural and heritage project AlUla, Amr al-Madani, was arrested on corruption and money-laundering charges. According to an official statement by the Saudi Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority, Nazaha, the allegations are linked to al-Madani “illegally obtaining” beneficial contracts that were worth USD 55 million from the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy for a company he co-owns, the National Talents Company.
The chief of special initiatives and partnerships, Abeer AlAkel, has been named the new acting CEO.
Though the events took place before al-Madani became CEO of the Royal Commission of AlUla, Nazaha’s report states that after al-Madani attained his government position—through already dubious means with the aid of a relative—he departed from his company in 2017. Yet internally he retained authority while garnering contracts with a total value of USD 350,000 from the Royal Commission of AlUla for the company, receiving a cut of the profits. Three of his partners, one of whom is a relative, have confessed to the accusations and are awaiting trial.
AlUla is part of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 to develop Saudi Arabia into an international arts and culture destination. Its upcoming open-air exhibition Desert X AlUla 2024, titled “In the Presence of Absence,” will take place from February 9 to March 23, 2024, in the desert and railway stations across the historic region of northwestern Saudi Arabia, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra.
AlUla first gained international attention for its partnership in 2018 when Prince Mohamed and French President Emmanuel Macron signed a ten-year exclusive agreement that enlisted France to help with cultural and tourism initiatives for an annual fee of EUR 30 million (USD 32.4 million) over a decade. However, slow progress in recent years due to management upheavals has not gone over well. The scientific director of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (AFALULA) Jean-François Charnier resigned in 2022 with AFALULA executive chairman Gérard Mestrallet departing the following year. They were replaced by Sophie Makariou, the former president of the Musée Guimet in Paris, and the former defense and foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, respectively. Charnier was indicted in an investigation that looked into the sale of looted Egyptian antiquities to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Despite these developments, a spokesperson from the French agency stated that the project has “sped up” in recent months, citing AlUla’s renewed archaeological digs; international exhibitions; cinema programs and exchanges; the construction of a new cultural hub Villa Hegra; and the recent agreement signed with the Centre Pompidou to expand a collaboration to open a new contemporary art museum in AlUla in 2027.
Camilla Alvarez-Chow is an editorial assistant at ArtAsiaPacifc.