Russian museum CEO: Archaeology in Saudi Arabia is at its peak

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The village of Rijal Alma is one of Saudi Arabia’s ancient treasures. (Shutterstock)
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Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Eastern of Saudi Arabia Al-Hasa. (Shutterstock)
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Edge of the World, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 October 2019

Russian museum CEO: Archaeology in Saudi Arabia is at its peak

  • Undiscovered archaeological treasures key to cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia

MOSCOW: Archaeology in Saudi Arabia has seen an unprecedented number of discoveries and findings in recent years. With over 44 Saudi and international missions working in the Kingdom this year alone, Russia’s State Hermitage Museum director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, commended the country’s efforts in presenting its hidden treasures to the world.
Arab News met with the director in Moscow to discuss the future of archaeology in Saudi Arabia and his interest in hosting one of its most famous exhibits, “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia.”
Piotrovsky, the urbane general director of the State Hermitage Museum located in Saint Petersburg, was appointed in 1992 by decree of the prime minister at the time.
He has a long history with the museum.
He took up the position following his father, Boris Piotrovsky, who was director from 1964 until his death in 1990.
Piotrovsky’s work at the museum is inspired by both his passion for the arts and a deeply rooted adoration for archaeology.
A graduate of Leningrad University, he spent a year taking part in archaeological explorations in Yemen, the Caucuses and central Asia, with over 200 scholarly publications, including catalogues of Arabic manuscripts.
A fluent Arabic speaker, he dedicated many years of his career to the archaeology of the Arab world, the spiritual and political history of Islam and Arab culture as well as medieval works and ancient inscriptions.
He told Arab News how the school of archaeology is always developing, and in order to achieve success in any excursion, it is key that teams coordinate with others to learn from their experiences.
“It is a very international field. If it is not, it will become too narrow and nationalistic,” Piotrovsky said.
“Archaeological departments are the most open bodies in every country. Be it Russia, Egypt, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, they are accustomed to working with different points of view and people from other civilizations. Openness is important for achieving success.”
The director said that many archaeologists from the Kingdom have been invited by the museum to partake in expeditions alongside Russian archaeologists to gain experience and exchange knowledge.
“AlUla is one of the jewels of archaeology,” he said. “It is a rare site, the Nabataeans controlled the routes from south to north. The Romans, Indians, ancient Palmyrians and Bedouins have been there.” The director told Arab News that they have been working in joint teams not only in archaeological diggings but also with plans to develop what they call an “archaeological park.”


4.5m - people visited the State Hermitage Museum.

The Russian State Hermitage Museum tells the story of Russia, its palaces, Peter the Great and many more significant historical moments. The museum also exhibits artifacts of different civilizations: Islamic, Buddhist, Catholic and others.
The museum’s message and goal is for “different civilizations to speak to each other and to us and make a connection,” he exclaimed.
Piotrovsky believes the same concept can be developed for AlUla.
Speaking to Arab News last January, Dr. Abdullah Al-Zahrani, general director of archaeological research studies at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said that digs in Saudi Arabia are increasing at an unprecedented rate.
“Archaeology in the Kingdom is on the rise,” said the director.
“There is still a lot to be discovered and we are still in the period where you begin to dig and make a discovery, dig more and make another discovery. In the Arab world, everything is new and holds a base for the development of knowledge.”
Piotrovsky has been following the progress of archaeology in the Arab world for many years and he said that more archaeologists are going to Saudi Arabia now than at any point in the past 10 years.
Antiquities discovered in the Kingdom are known to come from one of the oldest areas of human settlements, with discoveries dating back 1.2 million years. In this past year alone, 15 new sites were discovered across the country.


85,000-year-old discovery of a rare fossilized finger bone in the Nefud Desert is the oldest human fossil on record unearthed.

“It is a very important region which is still undiscovered properly. We all know the first man, according to our theories, was born in Africa and then we see its traces moving to Europe and Asia through the Arabian Peninsula,” said Piotrovsky.
“Ancient archaeology is very important but I think for this time period it should be the archaeology of the written period. Archaeology of the trade routes, coming from India and Africa, trade routes from Iraq and Palestine and Syria. There were fantastic kingdoms and sites.”
The museum’s keen interest in Saudi Arabia’s archaeological findings are a reflection of the director’s move to enhance cooperation between the countries.
It is planning on bringing the Kingdom’s first international exhibition dedicated to the human and natural heritage of AlUla titled “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia” to Saint Petersburg.
In 2011, the museum hosted the third leg of the “Saudi Archaeological Masterpieces through the Ages” exhibition after the successful exhibitions at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona.
Aimed to introduce the historical and cultural importance of the Kingdom, the 450 relics were displayed for the first time outside of Saudi Arabia. They date back to a time between the Palaeolithic era and the pre-Islamic ages.
Since the launch of the Vision 2030 reform plans, many steps have been taken to present Saudi Arabia’s modern culture and ancient wonders to the world.
There is history lying beneath the Kingdom’s vast sand dunes, and a dig will not suffice, there is more to be done for the world to connect with the Kingdom.
“Opening up to the world is a little bit dangerous, but a museum recipe is a good one,” said Piotrovsky.

UK ambassador reflects on five ‘big years’ in Saudi Arabia

Outgoing UK Ambassador Simon Collis speaks during an interview with Arab News in Riyadh. (AN photo by Saleh Al-Ghanem)
Updated 27 January 2020

UK ambassador reflects on five ‘big years’ in Saudi Arabia

  • Gap between perception and reality of Kingdom, says Simon Collis

RIYADH: Britain’s outgoing ambassador to Saudi Arabia said it has been a privilege to be in the country for the last five years and witness the changes in the Kingdom firsthand.

Simon Collis joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1978 and has been an ambassador in Iraq, Syria and Qatar. He has also held senior diplomatic positions in Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Dubai and India.
His diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia began a week after King Salman came to the throne in January 2015. A personal highlight was performing the Hajj in 2016 with wife Huda.
The five years that we’ve been here have been five big years, not only for us but five big years ... in the history of Saudi Arabia and certainly in the relationship with the UK,” he told Arab News. “It’s been just a wonderful time.”
He said there used to be concern about the role of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known as the Mutawa’a or religious police, and its unchecked power.
“There were people that would be nervous about it. There was no music in public places, there was no mixing in restaurants. In 2015 no one would have imagined just how much these changes would be, first with (the reform plan) Vision 2030, then economic, and also social changes, women driving, the removal of the guardianship laws across pretty much everything, and the balancing role of the Mutawa’a.”
He welcomed the government’s emphasis on developing the entertainment and cultural sectors, calling it a “tremendous story,” and said he had enjoyed witnessing the Kingdom’s transformation.
“To see the enthusiasm in a young country, I think a lot of these new sectors, creative entertainment, on top of the existing ones like education, have been a delight to see. Of course, it’s not finished yet. I think this period, these five years, will look like a big moment in the history of the Kingdom.”
Changes in the Kingdom have attracted interest — and greater visitor numbers — from overseas.


• Simon Collis joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1978 and has been an ambassador in Iraq, Syria and Qatar.

• He has also held senior diplomatic positions in Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Dubai and India.

• His diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia began a week after King Salman came to the throne in January 2015.

• A personal highlight was performing the Hajj in 2016 with wife Huda.

The country is gaining a reputation for hosting massive events featuring the world’s biggest names including boxing match Clash On The Dunes pitting Britain’s Anthony Joshua against Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr, the electronic dance music festival MDL Beast featuring David Guetta and Steve Aoki, and concerts from K-Pop megastars BTS and Super Junior.
The ambassador said there was a gap between the perception of the Kingdom and the country’s on-the-ground reality.
“In any country, there is a gap between the perception that the image that exists in the world, and the reality that you find. This is true of any country. That gap between the perception and reality has been bigger in relation to Saudi Arabia than to any other country that I’ve lived in. So, the result is once people visit and they see for themselves, then they change their overall perception. They change their minds, and this is a very powerful thing.”
Tens of thousands of UK nationals visit the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah every year to perform Hajj and Umrah, but the reasons to visit the country are increasing.
Collis said that 43,000 people from the UK had taken advantage of a new e-visa system launched last October to visit Saudi Arabia, the highest number in the world.
“Every year we’ve seen the number of Saudi nationals visiting the UK increase, now it’s coming the other way,” Collis said. “With a population of less than 70 million, and it’s the No. 1 country visiting Saudi Arabia more than any other country, I’m very proud of that. I would say that of the hundreds and thousands of British people who I have met visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, every single person I have met has left with a more positive (outlook) than the one that they arrived with. So, more visits must mean more people have a better idea of the realities of this country, society and its people.”
Collis said he had met many Saudis and forged friendships with them. People in the Kingdom had integrity and were straightforward, and the ambassador had special praise for the younger generation saying there was a “natural enjoyment” when he sat with them to talk. They were very aware, he added.


43,000 - people from the UK had taken advantage of a new e-visa system launched last October to visit Saudi Arabia, the highest number in the world.

His regard for young Saudis is evident. He launched the Alumni Awards, which recognize Saudi students who have returned to the Kingdom, excelled and succeeded in their professions or made an impact in their communities. With more than 100,000 Saudis studying in the UK over the last 10 years, the program will be developed in order to increase engagement with them once they return to Saudi Arabia.
The national and global awards initiative is aimed at showcasing the impact and value of a UK higher education, and winners and finalists are leaders in their fields.
“The Alumni Awards are fun. What the award looks at, whether it’s an entrepreneur or professional or social category, it’s not what did you do in the UK with your studies, it’s when you got your qualification, what did you do in Saudi Arabia when you came back. How did you use it? It’s about what use you put it to, not what you get, but how did you use it to further your own career, your life and that of your community and others around you,” Collis said.
Collis is succeeded as the UK’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia by Neil Crompton, who takes up the role next month.