Laurent Le Bon, president of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, on March 14 signed an agreement with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) to establish a massive branch of the contemporary art museum in the fast-growing AlUla region of Saudi Arabia. The outpost will be the fourth for the Pompidou, whose tendrils already reach Metz, France; Malaga, Spain; and Shanghai. The new institution will focus on art from Southwest Asia, North Africa, and South Asia, with an emphasis on twenty-first-century Land art and digital art. As well, the RCU will commission immersive installations and public artworks from Arab and international artists. The Pompidou in a statement said it would “contribute its scientific and technical expertise in the training of staff, particularly in the areas of conservation management of collections and mediation. It may also provide support for the organization of cultural and event programming.”
The proposed project is the latest in a string of arts initiatives to follow from a 2018 agreement between the French government of Emanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aimed at establishing AlUla—a northwestern Saudi desert region along the historic Silk Road and Incense Route and home to the Hegra UNESCO World Heritage Site—as a cultural and tourism hub. That agreement—on which Macron doubled down following what the UN Human Rights watch deemed the state-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—has already borne fruit in the form of the Paris-based Afalula agency, which places “French know-how” in the service of AlUla’s development.
The cultural accord with France is part of a broader initiative known as Vision 2030, which bin Salman launched in an attempt to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and establish a more progressive cultural profile for the country. The initiative is seen by some as an attempt on the part of the Saudi government to “artwash” its record of human rights abuses.