Darah: 40 years of recording history

Riyadh: Ali Bluwi

Published — Saturday 2 June 2012

Last update 2 June 2012 7:43 pm

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The King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah) has for 40 years faithfully recorded the economic, political and cultural history of Saudi Arabia.
Its massive archives include over 1 million documents and 50,000 books, all stored electronically. In a wide-ranging interview with Arab News’ Ali Bluwi, Dr. Fahad Al-Sammari, secretary-general of Darah, spoke in-depth about the new initiatives being undertaken to preserve the Kingdom’s rich heritage for future generations. He outlined the importance of Darah’s various projects in ensuring a sense of citizenship and ensuring national cohesion in the face of domestic and regional challenges. Following is the interview:

Q. Please outline the role of the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah) in terms of its goals and support for the scientific research community in the Kingdom.
A. Darah is the first official entity concerned with the preservation, retrieval and preparation of historical documents and manuscripts for researchers. Historically speaking, Darah was set up by a royal decree in 1972 (1392H) to record the history of the country and the Arabian Peninsula as far back in time as possible. The organization was named after the founder King Abdul Aziz, to recognize his remarkable achievement in establishing a modern state based on Islam, in the face of major international developments prevailing at the time, and transforming it into a country that could stand on an equal footing with other civilized nations. Darah aims to enrich scientific research by organizing symposia and specialized forums. It also collects and stores books — whether authored, translated or revised. It also gathers research and historical studies on the humanitarian values and heritage of the Saudi state, the Arabian Peninsula and Islam. Darah’s vision is to boost national values and cement national cohesion. These goals are derived from a national history that outlines the loyalty and passion prevailing in Saudi life.

Q. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Darah. Please describe the organization’s development over the years.
A. In my opinion, Darah passed through two stages. The first stage covers the period before Prince Salman became Darah chairman. Darah then developed its activities and size in line with the development of government organizations. Its administration was overseen by righteous and reputable men who were specialists and interested in such work. The second stage started when Prince Salman assumed the chairmanship of Darah in 1417H (1995/96). He is known for his intense commitment and interest in everything to do with national history and is, above all, considered to be a leader of historians. Prince Salman’s philosophy and unique vision is that our history is the key to nation building and dealing with today’s issues. When he took over, there were qualitative and quantitative developments in Darah’s activities, goals and responsibilities. The scope of its work and projects was significantly expanded. As envisioned by Prince Salman, Darah became a scientific forum for many diverse views on the history of Saudi Arabia and the region. His involvement and passion has ensured that it has now become the leading Arab and Islamic documentary institution. From the outset, Darah’s national message was clearly understood by all citizens who took the opportunity to deposit historic documents in their possession. A total of over 1 million documents have been collected since the inception of the project.

Q. What is the significance of the Prince Salman Prize and Grants for studies on the history of the Arabian Peninsula, now in its fourth year?
A. The success of the Prince Salman Prize and Grants, from the very beginning, is a result of generous allocations from his own funds. It has become the most important scientific prize in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to support historical, scientific and cultural scholarships. Prince Salman has always stressed the importance of linking current generations with the history and heritage of their fathers and grandfathers. The prize derives its scientific reputation from the scientific and national values of its sponsor, the defense minister, Darah chairman and head of the higher commission of the Prince Salman Prize and Grants. The awards encourage researchers to generate new or creative ideas or revive previously delayed projects. It has become a sought-after prize for scholars because it adds major value to their careers.

Q. How does the prize work in realizing its scientific and research objectives?
A. The scientific prize is awarded based on careful assessment of the research and in terms of strict criteria. This includes whether the work is of a pioneering, visionary nature and is comprehensive and diverse. The development process (in the country) is a fixed goal of Prince Salman, and informs the prize and all Darah projects and scientific work. So, on the directives of Prince Salman, a higher commission to oversee the prize was set up and chaired by him. This body includes a number of historians, intellectuals and officials who are conversant with history, antiquities and geography. The commission is assigned to study research, ideas and proposals referred to it by the scientific committee. There is also a general secretariat that lays down future plans and supports the prize. The prize has undergone various changes to its structure and awards, with some branches either dropped or added. Non-Saudi researchers and universities have also been given the chance to compete for the awards on the grounds that the history of the Arabian Peninsula is not limited only to Saudis. All these changes will allow the prize to grow and enrich the scientific movement in general.

Q. We acknowledge the scientific role undertaken by Darah, but could you please outline how it is helping to develop a greater sense of citizenship in the country?
A. One of the major goals of Darah is protecting our national history. We are proud of this cultural treasure, from which we draw strength and inspiration. The national history provides us with cultural references amid the world’s diverse cultures. It is for this reason that Darah, on the directives of Prince Salman, has a permanent presence at national festivals, including national day celebrations. Additionally, Darah is used to support Saudi celebrations abroad by providing resources through its cultural attaches. Darah has never been absent from the National Festival on Culture and Heritage (Janadriyah) because it represents a national forum that brings Saudi heritage to the forefront, restores communication and recalls popular memory. In this context, Darah has a memorial hall that is visited frequently by young students. It contains collections of (the life and work of) King Abdul Aziz, highlighting the historical value of his leadership. Darah is working on collecting books, studies and research. It already has over 300 items documenting various achievements and men who have been loyal to the homeland. Darah is also ready to serve any scientific, cultural or festival activity.

Q. What progress has Darah made in setting up a center for women researchers, and what is the aim of this initiative?
A. The center involves a two-pronged approach. The first part entails the construction of a building for the Princess Sarah Al-Sudairi Center for Women’s Research at the Darah premises and technical preparations for offices to ensure privacy and smooth communication with other units. The second part is aimed at receiving proposals for an effective administrative structure at the center. The center will be the women’s version of Darah. We’re looking forward to documenting the history of women in the Arabian Peninsula in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. This will cover all social, cultural, economic and nation building efforts of all women. We also plan to have the center support and sponsor scientific functions through lectures, symposia and studies.

Q. Darah plans to launch a project to document social, cultural and economic developments in the Kingdom. What do you hope will be gained from this project?
A. The project was recently launched at a workshop organized by Darah at its premises by a number of specialists who have academic experience in this area. The workshop, and other workshops to follow, is aimed at visualizing the actual launch of the project, based on local, Arab and international best practice, and experiences of similar mega projects. Generally speaking, the project is aimed at documenting social, economic and cultural developments through visual and non-visual means. The project will hopefully provide a more complete and comprehensive picture of the Kingdom’s history and society at large.

Q. Will the above project include residents in the Kingdom because, as we know, many Arabs and non-Arabs have lived with us for many years?
A. Accurate historical data always remains a target for Darah, from whatever source. Therefore, residents will be among the groups targeted by the project, particularly if they have documented information and have an interest in documenting their lives within the Saudi community. We will be interested in documents, photos or personal notes, and memories of social affairs. In fact, much of the information on the history of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, was derived and quoted from foreign Orientalists and their books. Correct and sound information is a common aim of all heritage projects, regardless of nationality and culture. In reality, Darah has previously recorded certain information from some Arab and non-Arab residents within the framework of the Kingdom’s oral history project.
Q. Darah and Jamia Millia Islamic University, India, recently signed, in Riyadh, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on scientific cooperation. What are the major terms of this MoU? Do you think that scientific agreements are effective?
A. This agreement falls within a series of agreements signed by Darah with a number of reputable scientific institutions in the world including, to mention a few, Oxford University (United Kingdom), Center of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies (Kuwait), the National Center for Documents (Yemen), the Heritage Center (Turkmenistan), and the National Center for Archives (Sudan). Jamia Millia Islamic University is among the most reputable universities in Asia and a leading religious education institution in the Islamic world, in addition to its well-known Arab and Indian Cultural Center. One major part of the agreement is related to launching joint scientific activities, serving the common history between Saudi Arabia and India and historical sources of Arab and Indian relations through seminars, lectures, and the exchange of visits between researchers. The agreement also includes the establishment of a scientific chair for documenting Arab-Indian relations and other forms of scientific cooperation of common interest between the two sides. Agreements, in general, pave the way for rapid communication and cooperation, which is one of the requirements of scientific research.

Q. Can foreign researchers cooperate with Darah on projects or scientific publications?
A. Serving the history of the Arabian Peninsula with in-depth research is open to all because there is a common history between nations and peoples because of their business, social and cultural relations. Therefore, the opportunity is available for constructive cooperation that satisfies the needs of researchers and serves Islamic and Arab history projects at the foundation. Darah has already cooperated with a number of historians in different countries on various subjects.

Q. One of the key Darah projects is the organization of royal symposia. Those interested in history are eagerly awaiting the major symposium on the history of the late Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd. What preparations have been made in this regard? And what is its importance since it will cover the longest period of rule in the Kingdom?
A. The royal symposia are important because we, together with researchers and narrators, document the community politically, socially, culturally and economically through the decisions of the king. We also document and disseminate his achievements. The royal symposium on the history of King Fahd, which is to be held soon, will be a major milestone considering the many people who will be participating. The reign of King Fahd was a long period extending over more than two decades that saw key local and foreign policy developments. The Scientific Committee has proposed adding specific themes to this symposium covering all events such as the Lebanese crisis, the Afghan Jihad, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The personal history of King Fahd will always remain high on the agenda of this series of seminars because it is an extension of the history of the founder (King Abdul Aziz) in terms of his policies and approach to running the country.

Q. Are qualified residents eligible to participate in this grand symposium?
A. Yes. Participation is open to all regardless of nationality, age or qualifications. Anyway, the most important criteria in this context are the novelty of the topics, innovation, proper documentation, and the scientific methodology applied in the research.

Q. Darah recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Saudi Aramco to document the history of the discovery of oil in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What is the nature of this agreement and when will it be implemented?
A. The MoU was signed under the patronage and care of Prince Salman. This memorandum is composed of two parts. The first tracks all stages covering the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and its impact on Saudi social, economic and cultural developments. The project is set to begin soon after the formation of a joint working group between Darah and Saudi Aramco, and will run for three years. It plans to document the contribution of Saudi Aramco, one of the world’s biggest companies, to Saudi society. The second part of the memorandum is ensuring cooperation with the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (KACWC) at Saudi Aramco for the exchange of experience and training in areas related to archiving, restoration and preservation of documents and manuscripts. The project falls within the bigger project of Darah aimed at documenting social, economic and cultural developments in the Kingdom.

Q. We are aware of the specialized scientific activity of Darah, but what about cultural activities, and the possibility of exploiting the Internet to keep abreast of new ideas?
A. Scientific activity is a major part of culture. Darah is constantly involved in the cultural scene through a number of specialized publications concerned with Arabic language, literature and heritage. In its capacity as a publisher, Darah has joined other institutions at local and foreign cultural events and fairs such as the Riyadh International Book Fair, Okaz Festival, Janadriyah Festival, sponsorship of photo exhibits and contribution to seminars and cultural forums. Also, most importantly, attracting and encouraging intellectuals to undertake historical research.
With regard to new ideas, Darah has, from the very beginning, acknowledged the importance of the Internet in communicating with scientific institutions, researchers and those interested in scientific activity all over the world. Accordingly, Darah has received a flood of e-mails with new proposals on projects in different languages.
Darah has completed the electronic version of its library, including donated books, to become the first Saudi library to have computerized over 50,000 books on the history of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula. Darah also maintains two big centers that provide technical support for Darah projects, including the Digital Center for Saudi History and Saudi Center for Geographical and Historical Information. All these elements show how computer technology is being exploited. Darah is therefore a home for all those individuals with positive and authentic ideas.


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