Andy Warhol Artwork Heads To The Saudi Desert


On February 17, FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla, opens in AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Inaugurating the AlUla Arts Festival (February 16-28) in partnership with the Andy Warhol Museum, it is a unique pairing of Western celebrity with Middle Eastern ideology.

Despite negative political press abroad, Saudi Arabia does indeed have a flourishing art world. Internationally acclaimed artists such as Manal AlDowayan and United Nations initiatives to highlight tribal female design continue to challenge notions of the place as devoid of beauty, culture or female artists. Yet the Andy Warhol showcase provides a platform for discourse arguably unprecedented in the nation, comparable to the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 (not long before the sale of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman).

Like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the FAME Andy Warhol exhibition is held at a desert architectural oasis, Maraya, which, “rises from the sand like a mirage.” “Maraya” means “mirror,” or “reflection” in Arabic, and as such, the building is covered with 9,740 mirrored panels designed to blend into the surroundings. Their website says it made the Guinness World Record as the “largest mirrored building in the world”.

The mirrors seek to reflect the ancient back through modernity, in the historic heritage area of the Ashar Valley and the UNESCO site Hegra. This is part of a push for tourism in the region, with what Bloomberg reports to be a target of 12 million tourists for the coming year at a 4% contribution to overall economic growth.


Hegra is a Nabatean city, seconded only in size by Petra in modern-day Jordan. The Nabateans were polytheistic Bedouins who spoke an Aramaic language, establishing trading posts in the region.

Although not quite the ancient past, FAME harkens back to Old Hollywood, with pop icons personified in vibrant hues of Warhol’s 1960s trademark. From Muslim celebrity Muhammed Ali to sex symbol Elizabeth Taylor, discourse on counterculture is paired with the photos that inspired the works.

Ultimately, Maraya is a social venue, portrayed as a concert hall before this artistic showcase, with singers like Enrique Iglesias having previously performed in February 2020. Concerts were illegal in Saudi Arabia until Mohammed Bin Salman opened the country to them in 2017, and even now remain controversial.

There is also a restaurant conceived by Michelin-Starred British chef Jason Atherton, which includes British influence on the cuisine. If one chooses to leave the Maraya complex and depart from high-quality local or Thai and Japanese cuisines, other chains locally include Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Although the Warhol show is a departure from the existing events, it does sync to the gaining momentum of creative crossover between East and West, and thus proves a culturally significant moment in Saudi Arabian art history.