When people travel to Saudi Arabia, the Four Seasons Riyadh in the tower (below) built by Scott Berry is top of the list for Middle East luxury. The iconic ultra-luxury hotel might be a great idea for a business traveller stopover for a day or two, but luxury and sustainability aren’t usually friends in the Middle East.
If you can spare a few days, travel about 800 miles to the Sea instead and meet at the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia’s prince is planning a bombastic gothic city called Neom at the Red Sea, but there are also plans to create some more realistic sustainable destinations like the new Foster + Partner circular resort which lassos the Red Sea. It is being called Hotel 12, for European ears, and Ummahat AlShaykh in Arabic.
The hotel is being designed to be part of the Red Sea Project to bring tourism all along the coast of the Red Sea.
While the Red Sea coral reefs are dwindling and are more or less devastated from climate change, oil spills, tourism and heavy freighter traffic, the Red Sea is still home to magnificent sea life. And you shouldn’t miss it in this lifetime. The atmosphere of desert meets water, and the purple and maroon mountains in the landscape help you understand how the 10 commandments were received at God’s Mountain in Sinai across the channel.
While Sinai might be my favorite place in the world, surely there will be some similar nature to love on the Saudi Arabian side as long as they keep peace with the Bedouins. Remember when one was killed to make way for Neom last year?
Other well-known architects like Kengo Kuma will be designing luxurious projects for these relatively untouched islands between Umluj and Al Wajh in Saudi Arabia. That is an archipelago of 90 undeveloped islands. Developers say it is the “world’s most ambitious tourism development”.
Foster + Partners aims to design the new hotel with a “light touch, non-damaging approach.”
“How do you bring people to these places where nobody has been before?” said Gerard Evenden, head of studio at Foster + Partners. “And how do you bring people into those places without damaging anything?”
Foster will take a circular approach and use stilts so that suites do not damage the beach. Considerations like eliminating single use plastics will come into part of the design.
The Red Sea Project aspires to be “100 percent carbon neutral” and will power up using renewable energy, with no waste from the hotels going to landfill.
“What is very important about anything sustainable is two things: one is giving people choices,” said Evenden.
“And the second thing is looking at what the resultant reaction of what you do will be. So, when we looked at the islands our approach was to have a light touch. As light as we could possibly be.”
We have to say that until now we haven’t seen a successful eco idea invented in Europe with Middle Eastern oil money that really returned on its promise to the Middle East. Of course with endless payments and promises of building dreams, foreigners are happy to run in and fill the spots where many other true environmentalists would rather say no.
Masdar, the supposed “zero energy” city in the Emirates basically attracts no one to live there (read the Ecotopia That Never Was), and those artificial islands in Dubai release a stench so stinky because water can’t circulate. Burj was built without sewage in mind, so that it’s hauled out by truck every day.
We’d rather have Middle Eastern world leaders stop wooing us with grandiose and stale ideas of the past future and paint us a picture of how Middle East dreamers like Hassan Fathy and Nader Khalili, the true futurists, envisioned homes for their own people in Egypt and Iran.
Those are building traditions tourists of the future would like to share. We align with people who bash dune bashing. People who revel in ancient languages spoken like the birds. Sharing cultures and traditions intimately. For this, ultra-luxury is passe. Luxury separates people into classes, the haves and the have nots.
We are post luxury. That’s why we’d prefer to take a fishing boat across the Red Sea and stay in a Bedouin hut and sleep under the stars in Sinai.