Sophie Makariou, the former president of the Musée Guimet in Paris, has been appointed to a key post in the French government organisation integral to the development of the vast north-western Saudi Arabian heritage region of AlUla, which is being heavily marketed as a new tourist destination.
Makariou has been named the “directeur scientifique” (scientific director) responsible for the culture and heritage division (archaeology, contemporary art and museums) of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (Afalula); she replaces Jean-François Charnier who stood down in September. The agency, founded in Paris in July 2018, is the result of an intergovernmental agreement signed by France and Saudi Arabia.
The agency works in partnership with the Royal Commission of Al-Ula, the Saudi governmental cultural body led by the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Saudi Arabia and France share a vision to implement a new economic and touristic development model, focused on the absolute preservation of the environment, respectful of history, and inclusive of local populations,” says Gérard Mestrallet, the executive chairman of Afalula, in an online statement.
In 2018, we charted how “the Americans sell arms to Saudi Arabia and the British sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but only the French sell arms and culture to Saudi Arabia”. The French connection can be traced back to 2006, when the late President Jacques Chirac visited Riyadh to open an exhibition from the Louvre of Islamic art and suggested to the late King Abdullah that the Saudis send an exhibition of archaeology to Paris in return.
That same year, just one day after Turkish officials announced that the journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 7 October, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, issued a decree officially confirming the cultural development of AlUla province. The budget for the joint project is believed to be at least $20bn.
The proposed network of future museums and archaeological sites around a museum of Arabic civilisation at the AlUla site follows the launch of Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017, another vast Middle Eastern project supported by the French government. The Emirati government paid €1bn for the Louvre’s brand and expertise (the loan of the Louvre name is for a period of 30 years and six months).
Sophie Makariou, a graduate of the Ecole du Louvre, joined the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the Musée du Louvre in 1994. She oversaw the launch of a new Islamic art wing at the museum in 2012. The following year, she was appointed president of the Musée Guimet (National Museum of Asian Art) where she introduced a contemporary art programme called “Carte blanches”, inviting artists such as Chiharu Shiota of Japan to respond to the collection.