hen George Iacobescu started developing the docklands of Canary Wharf in east London the mid-1980s it was a morass of empty warehouses, rusted cranes and polluted docks.
Now it is a gleaming rival financial district to the mighty City of London. Before Covid struck it was hosting some 120,000 workers a day in its glass towers.
In a way Sir George – who was knighted in 2011 – made that dockland desert bloom.
That’s one of the reasons the Saudi government came knocking at his door when they conceived the idea of turning its northern region of AlUla into the heart of a new hub of heritage tourism in the country.
It’s part of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 project, which aims to modernise Saudi Arabia, open the kingdom up to the world and diversify its economy away from an over-reliance on fossil fuels.
Sir George, the executive chairman of Canary Wharf Group, was asked to sit on the advisory board for the Royal Commission for AlUla, which is charged with overseeing planning in the region.
Other members include senior figures from the arts, tourism and politics, including representatives of Sotheby’s and UNESCO.
One difference between AlUla and Canary Wharf in the early 1980s is that the former, which sits around 1,000km north west of Riyadh, is already a UNESCO world heritage site.
The ancient town of Hegra was the main southern outpost of the Nabataean kingdom, which lasted from its founding in the third century BC until it was conquered by the Romans in 106AD.
The site includes 100 tombs carved from sandstone outcrops.
It also hosts even older archaeological sites with impressive rock art and an ancient oasis.
“The beauty of the area is untold, it’s incredible scenery,” says Sir George, speaking by telephone from his office in the Wharf’s Canada Tower.
“Honestly, it’s one of the wonders of the world. It’s like walking in the antiquities room of the British museum for two days.”
And Sir George, a former trustee of the British Museum, is enthusiastic about the design of the AlUla project, which plans to bring in two million tourists a year by building new museums, galleries, hotels and transport links.
“The masterplan is something that the most advanced countries in the world would be proud of,” he says. “Everything starts with a good masterplan.”
This vote of confidence in the project from so respected a figure in global real estate and finance as Sir George will be especially welcomed by its Saudi originators – especially if it helps encourage foreign investment.
This week the Saudi government confirmed $2bn of seed funding for the development.
What especially enthuses Sir George, he stresses, is its sense of responsibility to the local population – something he says it has in common with Canary Wharf, which sits in the relatively deprived London borough of Tower Hamlets.
“There’s a lot of attention to community,” he says. “They look at how to bring the people of the area up, how to give them a better living, how to give them jobs. It’s thoughtful and very respectful of the surrounding area. It’s very enlightened, it’s run by renaissance people.”
“It brings Saudi into the 21st if not the 22nd century – but still respecting the history.”
The masterplan aims to create 38,000 new jobs.
AlUla also has a major emphasis on environmental sustainability. There are plans for a 46km low-carbon tramway and 50 per cent of power sourced from renewables by 2035. It also includes a commitment to “circular economy principles”.
It also include mass tree planting and a commitment that 80 per cent of the region will be designated as a nature reserve.
The danger of big visionary projects, of course, is that they get imposed from the top down.
But Sir George says he is not concerned the project is being thrust onto an unwilling local population.
He recounts a trip to the region where he stopped his car and went into one of the local houses at random.
“The garden was a little oasis and the people were sitting on the ground. I went in unannounced and said ‘good day – can I take a look around? I want to see how normal people live’,” he recalls.
“They were so nice and so welcoming, the kids came with fruit.”
Sir George, who grew up in Communist Romania, adds: “I know what a staged reception is and this wasn’t.”
In terms of protecting the integrity of the archaeological sites he adds that “UNESCO is keeping a very close eye”.
It will, he says, be “high quality” tourism. “You’re not going to have hot dogs on the street”.
But the timeframe for the $15bn project is also rather tight. Fifteen years to develop a heritage tourism hub the size of Belgium and attract billions of dollars of foreign investment is ambitious.
Sir George describes it as “doable” and points out that some transport infrastructure in the form of an expanded airport and new roads has already been put in place.
But he adds that “you never finish something like that – it’s going to keep developing.”
The Nabataeans were the creators of the instantly recognisable Treasury in Petra, Jordan – a classical façade carved into a sandstone rock face. Petra welcomed more than 1 million visitors in 2019, confirming that mass tourism in the region is possible.
But Jordan has long been a much less religiously conservative regime than Saudi and has attracted less international controversy in recent years.
Asked why people in London, or Paris or Berlin should take an interest in AlUla and think about visiting Sir George stresses the region’s global historical importance.
“When I was a trustee of the British Museum I asked the question: who do you report to, respond to? And the answer was: to the world. It’s the same thing here – it’s a museum to the world.
“If you want to have a week of serenity, be at peace with yourself and look at culture, it’s an ideal place - it’s a place to see the history of the world.”