Saudi Arabia must embrace its thriving cultural sector
Al-Ahsa oasis is this week celebrating its new status as a World Heritage Site. Already famous for producing some of the best dates in the world, it will now become even better known for its history. It joins 1,000-plus other sites the UN cultural body UNESCO deems to be of international importance and universal value. These range from the world-famous pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis in Athens and India’s Taj Mahal to national parks and ancient monuments across every continent.
Membership of the list will bring international attention to Al-Ahsa. Standing at the crossroads of ancient migration routes from Africa to Eurasia, its history stretches back seven millennia. It has been inhabited and cultivated since Neolithic times and is an exceptional example of human interaction with the environment, according to UNESCO.
The Al-Ahsa oasis is the fifth site in the kingdom to gain World Heritage Site status
The oasis is the fifth site in the kingdom to gain World Heritage Site status. The first was Madain Saleh in 2008, so to reach five in such a short time is a significant achievement and reflects the rapidly increasing investment in Saudi Arabia’s culture and heritage over the past decade. More work is planned, with the government now wanting to double the number of World Heritage Sites over the coming decade.
The past has a special role to play in Vision 2030. Preserving and restoring cultural sites is a key ambition of the reform program, while it also wants to see new world-class museums that “attract visitors from near and far.” This can all support the emergence of the thriving tourism and cultural sectors, which are needed to generate jobs and leisure opportunities for young Saudis. The construction of Souq Okaz City in Taif, which began this week, for example, aims to create more than 15,000 jobs at its heritage sites, museums and leisure facilities.
But state-of-the art buildings, billion-dollar investments and international awards can only go so far in creating a vibrant and sustainable cultural sector. For that to happen, society as a whole needs to feel strongly connected to its heritage and history, and want to learn about it and play a full part in preserving it. Only then can the sector attract the dedicated visitors, employees and investment it needs to expand and flourish over the long term.
Success will therefore depend on education. Making heritage sites more accessible to schools and local communities, and engaging them in projects that help them learn about the rich and diverse cultural heritage of their country, will be critical in making the next generation as excited about spending time in a museum or cultural site as down the shopping mall or on Instagram or Snapchat.
Wider awareness doesn’t just bring higher visitor numbers and revenue; there are much deeper social benefits too. It can ensure that cultural heritage becomes an enduring part of the collective memory. At a time when change is happening faster than ever, it can provide society with the sense of continuity and shared identity it needs to move confidently toward its future.
- Alison Baily is an international affairs analyst, specializing in the Middle East and cultural issues. She currently works for the British Council, the UK’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the British Council. Twitter: @AlisonBaily