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Head of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla Cultural Project Arrested for Corruption

The CEO of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), responsible for the economic and tourism development of the Saudi archaeological site, was arrested and detained on Sunday, January 28, for his alleged involvement in “crimes of abuse of authority and money laundering.” Per a notice from the Saudi government-led National Anti-Corruption Commission (Nazaha), Amr bin Saleh Abdulrahman Al Madani “illegally obtained contracts” that benefited a company he partially owns, and reaped profits through illicit transactions conducted by two relatives.

Al Madani was appointed CEO of the commission upon its creation in 2017. RCU’s development of AlUla, an ancient desert city and civilization situated in the Medina province of northwest Saudi Arabia, is one of several cultural projects within Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 — an overarching national project announced in 2016 to promote the Kingdom’s socioeconomic and cultural diversity beyond its reliance on oil reserves.

Though RCU’s plan to develop AlUla into an archaeological and cultural tourism attraction has been marketed as both an opportunity for the local economy and global audience, critics have attributed bin Salman’s investments into the Saudi arts and culture scene as a primary example of “art-washing” his authoritarian and regressive regime.

According to a 2023 report from the human rights organization Reprieve, Saudi Arabia has seen state-sanctioned executions jump 82% between 2015 and 2022, during which bin Salman was the Defense Minister while his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, was the Prime Minister. The assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi shook the world in 2018, prompting various arts institutions to reevaluate their relationship with the country. Bin Salman succeeded his father as Prime Minister in 2022, maneuvering an even more severe crackdown on dissent with one hand while pushing Vision 2030 with the other.

As plans for AlUla continued to develop, Al Madani reportedly orchestrated contracts totaling 206,630,905 SR (~$55.1 million) between the Kingdom’s sustainable energy research sector and the National Talents Company which he partially owns. In addition, he was able to secure projects for the National Talents Company amounting to approximately 1,298,923 SR (~$346,400) in value by recommending it to the relevant departments within the RCU.

Al Madani was also accused of directly profiting from the projects through money transfers from two family members employed by the company who were reportedly also arrested and confessed to their involvement with the transactions. Since detained, the former CEO remains in custody awaiting prosecution, succeeded by Abeer Al Akel as the commission’s acting leader.

“Nazaha affirms on the continuation to pursue anyone who exploits the public office to achieve personal gain or harm public interest in any way, and it will continue to apply the law, with zero-tolerance against corruption,” the oversight and anti-corruption authority’s statement reads.

The RCU did not immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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