Saudi Arabia to restore cultural sites

Sunday 03/07/2016
Archaeological site of Al-Hijr, also known as Madain Saleh, in northern Saudi Arabia, was added in 2008 to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Asir, Saudi Arabia - If Rijal Almaa, a stone village tucked into a fold of Saudi Arabia’s southern mountains, showcases the polished end-point of new efforts in the king­dom to preserve cultural heritage, the hamlet of Watan Emsoudah rep­resents the difficulties faced.
Its low-covered alleyways lie thick with debris of decades of abandon­ment, some stone roofs have caved in and thistles grow high between the hamlet’s walls. Near the en­trance three men work to save a house.
Saudi Arabia has allocated nearly $1 billion to preserve its heritage in a reform plan but, after decades of neglect and in some cases deliber­ate destruction, saving its cultural treasures will prove complex and expensive.
While the funds were allocated in a National Transformation Pro­gramme unveiled in June, no details were given as to how it would be spent and the only tourism projects listed in the plan were for a few large sites.
“For maybe 40 years we stopped using these old houses and every five years you need to rehabilitate them,” said Abdulaziz al-Ghanem representative of Asir’s architectural heritage centre at the government’s General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. “I hope we get more money. We need it.”
Rehabilitating Watan Emsoudah, the village in Asir province swad­dled by terraced fields in a shal­low bowl on a mountain plateau, will cost around $1.6 million, said Ibrahim al-Almiy, a former history teacher and the local investor be­hind the projects.
Although Riyadh is a low-rise sprawl of highways and modern, concrete shopping malls, the towns of the Red Sea coast and the south­ern highlands still contain fine buildings in their historic old quar­ters.
In its efforts to end reliance on oil for economic wealth, Riyadh wants to invest in tourism, aiming to in­crease spending by Saudis at home instead of on holidays abroad and by pilgrims to Mecca at other attrac­tions around the country.
There is also an ideological agen­da to such efforts: Restoring cultural sites occupied a prominent place in Deputy Crown Prince Moham­med bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s Vi­sion 2030 reform plan as a means of boosting national pride.
The spectacular rock-hewn Na­batean tombs of Madain Saleh, the ornate façades of Jeddah’s coral-built old town and the ancient rock art hidden among boulders in the northern deserts constitute an in­heritance unique to the kingdom.
Ironically, given the focus on re­ligious tourism, recent destruction has mostly been in Mecca. Its old houses, including some dating to the time of the Prophet Mohammad, have been razed for development projects to increase pilgrimage.
That approach was partly a result of the austere local Sunni Muslim tradition, which regards the venera­tion of objects, including buildings associated with Islam’s earliest days, as tantamount to idolatry. The focus on national and even pre-Islamic heritage shows one way in which re­ligious strictures are loosening.
The road from Watan Emsoudah to Rijal Almaa descends Mount Sou­da in hairpin bends as the juniper scrub of the cool upper slopes gives way to the humid heat of the Red Sea coastal plain.
The example of Rijal Almaa, where investment of $1 million over the past three years has created from the village an attraction that is prominently featured in Asir prov­ince’s tourist literature, shows how restoration projects can succeed.
Its spectacular setting in a moun­tain valley and the towering size of its stone houses, decorated with chequerboard patterns in quartz give it advantages some other old villages lack. Almiy said this model could be emulated.
Money is a big problem. Almiy, who lived in an old house in Rijal Almaa until the age of 16, is an in­dependent investor and his projects were carried out in partnership with government agencies, which pro­vided some funds and official bless­ing.
Still, the government has invested so little in local heritage that it does not even have a register of tradition­al architecture in Asir or neighbour­ing provinces where most towns and villages have crumbling old houses.
It is a pattern repeated across the country: In Najran, a fertile valley running between steep dry hills into the Empty Quarter desert, clusters of adobe tower houses with distinc­tive horizontal ribs nestle among the fields.
Some are clearly looked after by their owners but most are slowly eroding, their lack of care caus­ing such structural damage that wide cracks are opening down their flanks or that the towers are listing dangerously.
The spending envisaged on tour­ism and heritage in the new reform plans, however, seems likely to fo­cus mostly on big projects. Wide-scale investment is planned near Madain Saleh and on some Red Sea islands rich in marine wildlife.
Saudi heritage was given a boost in 2014 when the UN cultural body UNESCO listed old Jeddah as a World Heritage Site. It presents some of the same preservation challenges as the villages of Asir, where, like in Jed­dah, most old houses are privately owned and some are in grave disre­pair.
“When I was young we didn’t know the importance of these build­ings. In those days we cheered when they knocked them down for a new road but now we have managed to safeguard the architecture,” said Sami Nawar, mayor of Jeddah’s old city.
The UNESCO listing has helped to ensure a brighter future for old Jeddah’s 600 historic houses, built of coral and with delicate wooden screens ornamenting their imposing façades. It galvanised state invest­ment and a restoration plan.
In Asir, any such holistic approach appears a long way off. “Saving our heritage is a national project. It’s for the whole nation but I don’t think there’s going to be any investment soon,” said Almiy.