Saudi Arabia’s mysterious stone structures seen from the air

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Archaeologist David Kennedy during an air expedition to explore Saudi Arabia’s desert plains. (AN photo)
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A helicopter view of the ancient stone structure used to trap animals. (AN photo)
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Kennedy photographs stone gates and graves. (AN photo)
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Kennedy examines the terrain ... a date with history
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A helicopter view of the ancient stone structure used to trap animals. (AN photo)
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Updated 06 January 2018

Saudi Arabia’s mysterious stone structures seen from the air

RIYADH: As the helicopter hovered above the Saudi desert, David Kennedy’s eyes lit up as he glimpsed what he had been searching for: A series of ancient, mysterious stone structures atop the desolate mountains.
The archaeologist had been using Google Earth for years to explore Saudi Arabia’s vast desert plains, but it was not until last month that he visited the Kingdom in person.
“Seeing it from 500 feet is so much better” than on Google Earth, Kennedy told Arab News, which accompanied him for an exclusive view of the discoveries.
Online satellite images revealed 400 stone gates — thought to be used for trapping animals — and graves scattered across the lava fields known as Harrat Khaybar and Harrat Uwayrid.
The Royal Commission for Al-Ula invited the Australian archaeologist to Riyadh, from where he flew to Al-Ula and took aerial photographs.
“I was astonished and delighted when I got the invitation … They spoke to me on Saturday and here we are (in Saudi Arabia) on Thursday,” he told Arab News last month.
Arab News accompanied him on helicopter trips over three days, alongside Don Boyer, an Australian geologist who now works in archaeology; Eid Al-Yahya, Saudi anthropological researcher in the civilizational and humanitarian history of the Arabian Peninsula; and a representative of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.
Kennedy was frequently seen hanging from the helicopter door while wearing a harness suit, with a camera in his hands.
There were also land tours as he was keen to land on one of the lava fields and see the structures on the ground.
“I’ve seen lava fields before and plenty of graves, but I’ve never seen ones like these. Absolutely amazing,” he said.
There are “so many wonderful sites. When we go back after refueling we’ll visit the best place,” he said, referring to Harrat Uwayrid. “The graves in this lava field are seen overlapping, which is very unusual.”

On Sunday, the third and last day of the tour, a helicopter flew with eight people on board to Harrat Uwayrid, then to Mada’in Salih to see the site from above after taking a land tour the day before.
In 2008, Abdullah Al-Saeed, a Saudi medical doctor, wrote to Kennedy asking him to check out sites in the Kingdom that he had spotted.
“I was stunned because I hadn’t thought of looking up Saudi Arabia (on Google Earth) before, as I thought the quality of the imagery for most of the Middle East was poor,” said Kennedy.
He described the images he found as “absolutely astonishing,” similar to sites he had seen in Jordan but with different designs. “So most people with the same idea executing it in a different way,” is how he described it. Kennedy and Al-Saeed co-wrote an article about it for Saudi Aramco World Magazine.
While searching for more high-resolution imagery on Google Earth, Kennedy said he was particularly interested in Harrat Khaybar.
“There’s just so much there. I’ve been used to the lava field in Jordan, which is very rich, but Harrat Khaybar I think is richer. It’s an absolutely wonderful place.”
Kennedy has written a few articles about what he has seen in Saudi Arabia on Google Earth. “When I started looking at Harrat Khaybar, I found more and more good imagery there, and I was able to interpret the whole area,” he said.
It took him months to systematically analyze and catalogue the imagery, but “at the end of that process, we found almost 400 of these very strange structures that we’ve called gates,” he added.
“That gave us the opportunity to start an analysis or some sort of interpretation of the findings.”
Al-Yahya argued that he and his team found more than the 400 desert structures. “My team, consisting of two, and I started counting the graves on Google Earth, but we stopped at 1 million.”
The gates are among different stone structures in the lava fields. Some could be up to 9,000 years old, Kennedy said, adding: “They’re huge, and there are so many of them.” Al-Yahya said the densest concentration of such structures in the world is in Harrat Khaybar.
Kennedy said he has never been especially excited by grandiose sites. “They’re great to visit. Mada’in Salih is an amazing place. I like places like that, but I’m more interested in small sites of everyday life, not the great things that kings and emperors made,” he added. “There’s a lot of Roman material around Al-Ula. I’m excited about that.”
Kennedy said people do not often hear much about the archaeology of the Kingdom. “When people think of Saudi Arabia, they probably think of mountains and great sandy deserts. People are surprised when you tell them there’s a population of over 30 million people. They think it’s a desert and only 1 or 2 million people live there, riding camels.” That is probably why Saudi Arabia has caught people’s attention, he added.
Kennedy explored the lava field of Harrat Uwayrid during his three-day stay in Al-Ula. Visiting Mada’in Salih, he was able to see the Hijaz railway, part of which he photographed in Jordan last year and the year before. “It’s fascinating,” he said.
There is a big project in southern Jordan called the Great Arab Revolt Project, which is about the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, and those involved in it would love to come to Saudi Arabia, Kennedy added.
Google Earth is “hugely important because there’s so much high-resolution imagery and you can zoom in and look at sites,” but it will never replace aerial photography and archaeology, he said, adding that they complement each other.
“If you have Google Earth and aerial archaeology, you should also go on the ground. You really have to explore as many of these places as possible.”
Kennedy’s most recent paper is entirely about the stone gates. He has published other work about what he has seen on Google Earth over Saudi Arabia, including one on sites near Jeddah.
A paper in which he contrasts what he has seen in Jordan and Saudi Arabia could be published early next year.
“Everything (in Saudi Arabia) seems very clean, tidy and organized,” Kennedy said, laughing at how he has only just visited the Kingdom despite two of his brothers having worked there for decades, one as a flying instructor on contract with the Royal Saudi Air Force, and the other as a dentist.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Kennedy said, adding that the Kingdom is developing rapidly.
“I went to an exhibition about five years ago called ‘Roads of Arabia’ in Washington, and I found it absolutely fabulous. The presentation was amazing. Such things are giving people a different impression of Saudi Arabia from just desert and camels,” he said, referring to an exhibition on ancient civilizations and cultures.
“Then there was a conference in Oxford about three years ago called ‘Green Arabia,’ which again surprised people as it contradicted the typical image of deserts.”
Tourism in the Kingdom could be boosted by heritage-oriented adventure holidays, he said, citing Mada’in Salih as an alternative to Petra in Jordan. “People would be astonished to discover this remarkable place (Mada’in Salih).”
Kennedy, who visited Syria long ago, expressed his wish to go back there. “It was wonderful visiting sites in Syria. I think it’s going to be a long, long time before I can do that again.”
His passion for archaeology started at the age of 10, when he was given a book as a Christmas present on sites in Britain.

Misk Global Forum: Panelists spoke about future skills, AI and social intelligence on the first day

Updated 15 November 2018

Misk Global Forum: Panelists spoke about future skills, AI and social intelligence on the first day

  • Princesses and politicians, entrepreneurs, an Olympian and football legend joined forces to power a skills revolution

“What does the future look like, in a world where everything is changing?” This question rang out as a video montage played at the “Skills for Our Tomorrow” Misk Global Forum on Wednesday.

From the vantage point of  the third annual forum in Riyadh, the future buzzed with possibilities as more than 3,500 delegates were treated to sessions with political ministers, princesses, inventors, entrepreneurs and athletes. They had all assembled to share their vision of what is needed to deliver the skills that will be needed in future.

Weam Al-Dakheel, the first woman to anchor the main evening news on Saudi Arabian TV, introduced the forum’s executive manager Shaima Hamidaddin. “We want you to be inspired, not just by our speakers, but by your fellow guests,” said Hamidaddin, as she welcomed delegates. 

Hamidaddin asked for a show of hands from different parts of the world, showing that there were delegates from every continent except Antarctica — the forum would work on that for next year, she promised. She then asked for a show of hands for those under the age of 35 to demonstrate that this was the youngest Misk Global Forum yet.

She added that thanks to technology, we are already more connected than ever before, but urged people to interact with the speakers and guests from different cultures. “We must seize the opportunity for uniquely human collaboration,” she said.

As the moderator of the first session, “It’s All About Skills,” Arab News’ editor in chief Faisal J. Abbas began by holding up the morning’s newspaper: “Two years ago people used to read the news like this,” he said.

But as he pointed out, the news industry has changed drastically, with digitally connected audiences increasingly using online platforms such as Twitter.

With media tweeting out his comments, Abbas introduced his guests: Ahmed bin Suleiman Al-Rajhi, the Kingdom’s minister of labor and social development; Shaima Hamidaddin; Jayathma Wickramanayake of Sri Lanka, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on youth and Sue Siegel, chief innovation officer for General Electric.

Abbas asked Al-Rajhi how the government was tackling the challenge of finding jobs for young people. “With Vision 2030 programs ... we have a lot of initiatives and there is potential,” the minister said. “We all need to work together and collaborate with the education system, employers who create the jobs and the ministry to give a clear direction of where we are going today.”

Arab News Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas hosted a panel on skills. (Ziyad Alarfaj/Arab News)

Asked whether job creation is considered to be an issue worldwide, the UN youth envoy said: “It is not a national or regional issue but a global one: Our world is younger than it has ever been before.” 

Wickramanayake said that by 2030, South Asia and Africa will supply 60 percent of the world’s workforce. “We have a large majority of young people who are working but still live in poverty,” she said, adding it is important to invest in them. “If we are serious then this is the time to make those investments to be productive citizens and employees and employers.”

A group that has been making just this sort of investment in Saudi Arabia is the forum’s organizer, the Misk Foundation, which. was founded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2011. 

Abbas asked the question that is on everyone’s minds these days: Are machines going to take our jobs? Siegel answered that while everybody looks at artificial intelligence and has this fear, actually AI will create new jobs and be used for more mundane tasks. 

AI was the topic of another session later in the day. Julia Glidden, general manager, global government industry for IBM Corporation in the US, said it is really important to know what AI is not. “It comes back to you and what you bring to your societies, which is your humanity, your passion, your vision and creativity, because machines will never replace that,” she said. 

Another panel on the topic of social intelligence stressed that technology could sometimes hinder people from interacting with the world around them.  Adeeb Alblooshi, the UAE’s youngest inventor, said it is important to develop social intelligence. 

He advised young people: “You have to start simple by understanding little things people do and that’s how you can gain experience. You don’t need to have the best equipment and the latest technology to develop. Just don’t give up ... always have faith.” 

Princess Reema bint Bandar, deputy of planning and development at the Saudi General Sport Authority. (Basher Saleh/Arab News)

The day wasn’t just about skills and intelligence. Athletes led the afternoon sessions, including a panel on the Future of Sport moderated by Princess Reema bint Bandar, deputy of planning and development at the Saudi General Sport Authority. 

Lubna Al-Omair, the first Saudi female Olympic fencer, interviewed Amir Khan, the Olympic medalist and light-welterweight world champion, who appeared wearing traditional Saudi clothes. He said that he hoped to help the next generation of Saudi boxers to become Olympic champions, and the only way to do this is by opening academies here. 

British boxing legend Amir Khan. (Ziyad Alarfaj/Arab News)

Khan said he believes there is a reason Saudis are good boxers: “Maybe it is in their blood — they are warriors.”

Winding up the day, Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho appeared on stage to a chorus of cheers and gave a talk entitled “The Discipline — and Fun — of Teamwork. ”

His advice for the audience? “Prepare yourself and help your colleague or team member,” he said. “Humility is important. Try to stay humble.”

He also said to train hard, read as much as you can and don’t fear failure. “I failed a lot of times,” he said. “Football is like that. You can’t always win. You have to seek lessons from the defeats and not lose hope.” 

Now retired, Ronaldinho is more concerned with giving back. “After I stopped playing, I have soccer academies. That’s what I’m proud of, and it has given me pleasure. To give something back (as a) thanks to football and everything it has given me.”

The forum was continuing at Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Center on Thursday.

Brazilian soccer great Ronaldinho. (Ziyad Alarfaj/Arab News)