The chosen candidates will spend three to six months at college in Riyadh while careers advisers and psychologists assess their abilities and where they might be best applied.
“Then they will be sent out into the world, to improve their languages, to learn how to be independent,” said Al Madani.
Young girls and boys sent out into the world to be independent? It is not the picture most outsiders have of Saudi Arabia. The change in perception, the big plans, the breath-taking ambition of Vision 2030, all emanate from the country’s youthful crown prince.
“This is a new era for Saudi Arabia and it all comes from him,” said Al-Madani. The Al-Ula project, too? “Eveything.”
A graduate of Harvard Business School, Al-Madani has 15 years’ experience in discovering and nurturing innovation. He is also a former chief executive of the General Entertainment Authority, the body charged with bringing cinema, live performances and sporting events back to the Kingdom.
But he talks about Al-Ula with such zeal that Amr Al-Madani truly gives the impression that he believes he has the best job in town — any town.
Certainly, re-introducing Al-Ula to the world is a bigger task than introducing the world to Al-Ula.
“Many centuries ago,” Al-Madani says, “Al-Ula was already used to seeing people from all over; Al Ula was global long, long ago.”
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Arab News has seen many of the wonders of Al-Ula at first hand — from the air. We took a helicopter flight last year with the Australian archaeologist David Kennedy, who had been using Google Earth for years to explore Saudi Arabia’s vast desert plains.
“Seeing it from 500 feet is so much better,” he told Arab News, as he hung from the helicopter door while wearing a harness suit, with a camera in his hands.
There are 400 stone gates — thought to be used for trapping animals — and graves scattered across the lava fields known as Harrat Khaybar and Harrat Uwayrid.
“I’ve seen lava fields before and plenty of graves, but I’ve never seen ones like these. Absolutely amazing,” Kennedy said.
There are “so many wonderful sites. When we go back after refueling we’ll visit the best place,” he said — Harrat Uwayrid. “The graves in this lava field are overlapping, which is very unusual.”
In 2008, Abdullah Al-Saeed, a Saudi doctor, wrote to Kennedy asking him to check out sites in the Kingdom that he had spotted on Google Earth.
“I was stunned because I hadn’t thought of looking up Saudi Arabia before, as I thought the quality of the imagery for most of the Middle East was poor,” said Kennedy.
He described the images he found as “absolutely astonishing,” similar to sites he had seen in Jordan but with different designs. “So most people with the same idea executing it in a different way,” is how he described it. Kennedy and Al-Saeed co-wrote an article about it for Saudi Aramco World Magazine.
“There’s just so much there. I’ve been used to the lava field in Jordan, which is very rich, but Harrat Khaybar I think is richer. It’s an absolutely wonderful place.”
- Aisha Fareed, Riyadh