France and Saudi Arabia are set to agree on a $20 billion tourism plan to develop the famed cultural site Mada’in Saleh.
Under the arrangement, reported by the Art Newspaper, France would help Saudi Arabia develop a museum, research center, university, and hotels, along with other cultural amenities and infrastructure in the Al-Ula region, which includes the ancient architectural site of Mada’in Saleh. Saudi Arabia's government is footing the project’s bill, according to one source who spoke with the publication. That same source billed the planned museum on Arab history as being “two to three times bigger than the Louvre Abu Dhabi,” the success of which reportedly prompted Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to raise the idea of a cultural partnership with French President Emmanuel Macron. The pair are expected to sign off on the ten-year agreement Tuesday. Mada’in Saleh is the home of a dazzling but difficult-to-access array of architectural wonders carved directly into the cliff face by the Nabataeans, whose kingdom spanned the fourth century BC to the first century AD.
The partnership fits squarely into the cultural-image building favored by both leaders. Under Macron, France has aggressively worked to use culture as a tool of diplomacy, while the project’s reported guarantees of research freedom and gender parity are aligned with the changes in Saudi Arabia issued into effect by Salman, which include allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters.