‘It’s one of the wonders of the world’: how the entrepreneur who transformed Canary Wharf is now helping Saudi tourism do the same Business News


hen George Iacobescu began developing the docks at Canary Wharf in east London in the mid-1980s, it was a swamp of empty warehouses, rusty cranes and polluted docks.

Today it is a brilliant financial district rival to the mighty City of London. Before Covid struck, it hosted around 120,000 workers a day in its glass towers.

In a way, Sir George – who was knighted in 2011 – made this docks desert flourish.

This is one of the reasons the Saudi government came knocking on its door when it conceived the idea of ​​making its northern region of AlUla the heart of a new hub of heritage tourism in the country.

It is part of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 project, which aims to modernize Saudi Arabia, open the kingdom to the world and diversify its economy away from over-reliance on fossil fuels.

Sir George, the executive chairman of Canary Wharf Group, has been invited to serve on the advisory board of the Royal Commission for AlUla, which is responsible for overseeing planning in the region.

Sir George Iacobescu, Executive Chairman of Canary Wharf Group

(Neil Turner)

Other members include figures from the arts, tourism and politics, including representatives from Sotheby’s and UNESCO.

A difference between AlUla and Canary Wharf in the early 1980s is that the former, which lies about 1,000 km northwest of Riyadh, is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ancient city of Hegra was the main southern outpost of the Nabataean kingdom, which lasted from its founding in the third century BC until its conquest by the Romans in 106 AD.

The site includes 100 graves dug in sandstone outcrops.

It is also home to even older archaeological sites with impressive rock art and an ancient oasis.

“The beauty of the area is incomparable, it’s an incredible landscape,” said Sir George, speaking by phone from his office in the Canada Tower at the wharf.

“Honestly, it’s one of the wonders of the world. It’s like walking through the antiques room of the British Museum for two days.

And Sir George, former administrator of the British Museum, is excited about the design of the AlUla project, which plans to attract two million tourists a year by building new museums, galleries, hotels and transport links.

“The master plan is something that the most advanced countries of the world would be proud of,” he said. “It all starts with a good master plan.”

This vote of confidence in the project from such a respected figure in real estate and global finance as Sir George will be particularly welcomed by its Saudi initiators – especially if it helps encourage foreign investment.

Although what particularly excites Sir George, he points out, is his sense of responsibility to the locals – something he says he has in common with Canary Wharf, which is in the relatively underprivileged area of ​​Tower. Hamlets.

“There is a lot of attention to the community,” he says. “They are looking at how to bring people from the region, how to give them a better standard of living, how to give them jobs. It is caring and very respectful of the surrounding area. It is very enlightened, it is managed by people of the Renaissance.

“This brings Saudi Arabia into the 21st if not the 22nd century – while respecting history.”

(Royal Commission for AlUla)

The master plan aims to create 38,000 new jobs.

AlUla also emphasizes environmental sustainability. There are plans for a 46 km low carbon tramway and 50 percent of electricity produced from renewables by 2035. It also includes a commitment to “circular economy principles” .

It also includes massive tree planting and a commitment to designate 80% of the area as a nature reserve.

The danger of big visionary projects, of course, is that they are imposed from the top down.

But Sir George says he’s not worried about the project being forced on reluctant local people.

(Royal Commission for AlUla)

He recounts a trip to the area where he stopped his car and randomly entered one of the local houses.

“The garden was a little oasis and people were sitting on the ground. I walked in unexpectedly and said ‘have a nice day – may I take a look around? I want to see how normal people live, ”he recalls.

“They were so kind and welcoming, the children came with fruit.”

Sir George, who grew up in Communist Romania, adds: “I know what an organized reception is and it wasn’t.”

Regarding the protection of the integrity of archaeological sites, he adds that “UNESCO keeps a very close eye”.

It will be, he says, “high quality” tourism. “You’re not going to have hot dogs on the street.”

But the schedule for the $ 15 billion project is also pretty tight. Fifteen years to develop a heritage tourism hub the size of Belgium and attract billions of dollars in foreign investment are ambitious.

Sir George describes it as “feasible” and points out that some transport infrastructure in the form of an enlarged airport and new roads have already been put in place.

But he…

More about this article: Read More
This notice was published: 2021-04-29 11:02:28