Saudi Arabia’s budding attention to museums
Tabuk - Standing next to a huge shopping mall in the heart of Tabuk, about 500 km north of Medina, are 13 refurbished historic structures boasting traditional Hejazi architecture. The buildings are mostly empty but in a year the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) expects the site to be bustling with tourists.
The dusty patch of land was once the promising Hejaz Railway station established in 1906. It was to be part of an important trade and haj rail route from Damascus to Tabuk and on to Medina and Mecca.
However, the nearly 1,500-km distance, the harsh environment and T.E. Lawrence’s Arab army during World War I spelled doom for the railroad. The tracks ended ingloriously in Medina following numerous attacks by Lawrence to disrupt Ottoman attempts to control the region. The railway never operated after 1918.
The SCTA is setting its sights on preserving historic treasures and introducing Saudis to the kingdom’s past. Tabuk’s Hejaz station stands testament to Saudi Arabia’s gamble that Saudis and foreign visitors will have an interest in events that shaped the kingdom.
Saudi authorities also hope to preserve pre-Islamic sites, particularly in the north-west, where there is evidence that Egyptians from the west established trade in the Tabuk region.
It is not an easy task. Yaroub H. al- Ali, manager of archaeology at the Tabuk Antiquities Office, said the commission is working to “slowly introduce Saudis to the concept of museums” and other historic venues.
“We plan to build museums around the country and we have one already under way here in Tabuk,” Ali said.
A testament to the country’s ambitions is a state-of-the-art, two-storey museum on the Tabuk railway station grounds that is scheduled for completion in October 2016. Ali promises that exhibits on regional archaeological findings will complement the Hejaz Railway history.
“We have a (locomotive) and railway car housed in one building with exhibits and another railway building is reserved as a handicrafts centre that will have traditional Arab arts and crafts,” Ali said.
The Tabuk project is part of the vision of Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, secretary-general of the Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. He announced in 2012 that six museums were being constructed in Saudi Arabia with six more planned.
“I would like to urge the citizens to preserve this important national wealth,” Prince Sultan said when he inspected archaeological sites in Tayma, 260 km south-west of Tabuk.
Prince Sultan’s statement points to a changing attitude in a country that has long been indifferent to the destruction of historic sites. In recent years, Saudi authorities asked German archaeologists to join researchers from King Saud University to excavate Islamic and pre-Islamic sites in Tayma.
In 2010, the commission announced that archaeologists discovered an inscription carved in a rock referring to Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III and dating between 1185-1153BC. The discovery points to evidence that Tabuk and Tayma were part of an important route linking the Nile valley with north-west Arabia. About 30 km from Tayma numerous inscriptions belonging to the pre-Islamic Thamud tribes have been excavated.
However, the commission must sell history as an educational process and family activity to Saudis. Visiting museums is not a concept typically ingrained in Saudis, whose sense of history and place rarely extend to before the birth of the Prophet Mohammad.
Saudi Arabia since 2010 has begun promoting domestic tourism followed by a push to encourage Muslims from neighbouring countries to visit. Although efforts to attract non-Muslim foreign tourists have been inconsistent, tourist company owners are hopeful that visa regulations will loosen to draw more tourists and boost the regional economy.
Tabuk officials see tourism as part of the solution as Saudi Arabia attempts to wean itself from oil as a major source of revenue. In 2013, about 392,000 people were employed in the country in tourism-related jobs, including employment indirectly supported by the tourism industry. An estimated $6.4 billion were invested in the Saudi tourism industry. Investments are projected to reach $10.6 billion by 2024, according to a 2014 World Travel & Tourism report.
Hatim Al-Jalawi owns a private museum and operates Tabuk Tourist Sights, which provides bus tours of the region. His museum features an eclectic collection of Arabian peninsula artefacts ranging from 18th- and 19th-century firearms to antique household items. He displays artefacts from a Jewish community believed to have existed near Tayma. On the grounds are a restored mud brick house and dioramas of Saudi households from the past.
“Private museums could use some help in cataloguing and preserving collections like these,” said Jalawi, who indicated that he would welcome government expertise in handling his collection.
Still, Jalawi has forged a relationship with the Antiquities Office to bring visitors to the Tabuk Castle, which was restored in 1992, across the street from his museum. He has a special interest in giving Westerners the VIP treatment by offering them Arabic coffee and dates while visiting the castle to introduce them to Saudi culture and hospitality.
Wael Alkhalid, a tourism commission guide who takes videos of the Tabuk region and posts them online, said the new museum and railway station, nearby archaeological sites and restoration along Prince Fahd bin Sultan Road in the Old Quarter of the city puts Tabuk in a position to be a major tourist destination.
“Tabuk has a lot to offer,” Alkhalid said. “It’s a remote city but it has many things that other cities don’t have. Tabuk people are very warm and friendly. They would welcome visitors from anywhere.”