How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists

How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
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AlUla, Saudi Arabia's leading heritage site, is a living museum that is home to ancient civilizations and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years. (Shutterstock)
How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
2 / 2
AlUla, Saudi Arabia's leading heritage site, is a living museum that is home to ancient civilizations and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 23 September 2022

How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists

How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
  • Each of the six World Heritage sites shows that Saudi roots run far deeper than many might have imagined
  • Carefully preserved and protected, Diriyah is the jewel in the crown of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest giga-projects

LONDON: Even as Saudi Arabia writes the next chapter in its story, defined by the ambition of its Vision 2030 blueprint for the future, it is rediscovering and embracing a past destined to play a central role as it opens up to the outside world.

Since 2008, Saudi Arabia has had no fewer major six sites of “outstanding universal value” inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

There are 10 more on its Tentative List — properties being considered for nomination — including the Hejaz railway, three historic pilgrimage routes and the Al-Faw archaeological area at the northwestern edge of the Empty Quarter, a site of human occupation from prehistoric nomadic times to the growth of a thriving ancient caravan city in the second half of the first millennium B.C.

Certainly, there is no shortage of locations from which to choose for future nominations; there are more than 10,000 historical sites on Saudi Arabia’s National Antiquities Register. 




Diriyah served as the capital of the Emirate of Diriyah under the first Saudi dynasty from 1727 to 1818. (Supplied)

Each of the six World Heritage sites is one piece of a fascinating mosaic that shows not only that Saudi roots run far deeper than many might have imagined, but also that Saudi heritage is a vital component in the broad sweep of human history.

And this is living history. Each site will play — and in some cases is already playing — a crucial role in the opening up of the Kingdom as a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.

One of the most breathtaking of the UNESCO properties is the Hegra archaeological site, centerpiece of plans by the Royal Commission for AlUla to develop sensitively as a major destination more than 22,000 square kilometers of the spectacular landscape of the AlUla region, with its lush oasis valley and towering mountains. 

The jewel in AlUla’s crown is the ancient city of Hegra, the southern capital of the Nabataeans, who also built Petra in modern-day Jordan.




AlUla, Saudi Arabia's leading heritage site, is a living museum that is home to ancient civilizations and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years. (Supplied)

Yet the astonishing collection of over 100 hand-carved tombs, many with elaborate facades and inscriptions, cut into sandstone outcrops, is merely the tip of an archaeological iceberg.

There are currently a dozen international archaeology teams exploring the past cultures of AlUla and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field, from prehistory to the early 20th century. The astonishing volume of the finds they have already documented is prompting a radical rethinking of the prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula.

One team, from the University of Western Australia, has spent the past four years identifying and cataloging all the visible archaeology of AlUla county and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field. The tens of thousands of structures found, most between 4,000 and 7,000 years old, tell a story of a landscape and a climate that was once lush and temperate. 

In all, the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project has identified 13,000 sites in AlUla and an extraordinary 130,000 in Khaybar county, dating from the Stone Age to the 20th century, with the vast majority from prehistory.

A “core” 3,300 square meter area of AlUla was surveyed separately by UK-based Oxford Archaeology which, working with staff and students of King Saud University in Riyadh, identified in excess of another 16,000 archaeological sites.




A panoramic view of the Dadan District, site of the ancient city of Dadan, a predecessor to Hegra.  (Supplied)

Dr. Hugh Thomas, a senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia, said that in the past archaeologists had concentrated on the Fertile Crescent. “But as we do more and more research, we’re realizing that there was so much more here than small, independent communities living on nothing much and not doing much in an arid area,” he told Arab News. 

“The reality in that in the Neolithic period, these areas were significantly greener, and there would have been really sizeable populations of people and herds of animals moving across these landscapes.”

Among the most intriguing finds cataloged by the AAKSA team are the mysterious mustatils — often huge, rectangular structures, built by an unknown prehistoric people over 8,000 years ago. Possibly unique to the Arabian Peninsula, they are thought to have had some kind of ritualistic purpose.

More than 1,600 are now known to exist across 300,000 square kilometers of northwestern Saudi Arabia, concentrated mainly in the vicinity of AlUla and Khaybar.

More evidence of Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past can be found in the world’s largest and most impressive collections of Neolithic rock carvings, or petroglyphs, located at two sites 300 kilometers apart in the Hail province, together adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2015. 




Camel and oryx images depicted on the vertical surface of Jabal Umm Sinman, in association with several Thamudic inscriptions, are found in Hail region in northern Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

The first is at Jabal Umm Sinman, a rocky outcrop to the west of the modern town of Jubbah, the origin of which dates back to the dawn of Arab civilization, when the surrounding hills once overlooked a lake, lost beneath the sands of the Nefud desert some 6,000 years ago.

It was on the hills of Umm Sinman, in the words of the UNESCO nomination document, that the ancestors of today’s Saudis “left the marks of their presence, their religions, social, cultural, intellectual and philosophical perspectives of their beliefs about life and death, metaphysical and cosmological ideologies.”

The second site is at Jabal Al-Manjor and Jabal Raat, 220 kilometers southwest of Jubbah, near the village of Shuwaymis. 




The Cultural Rock Arts in Hima Najran consists of rock art images made over millennia ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country. (Supplied)

Together, the twin sites tell the story of over 9,000 years of human history, from the earliest pictorial records of hunting to the development of writing, religion and the domestication of animals including cattle, horses and camels.

The rock art in the Hail region is regarded as one of the world’s most significant collections, “visually stunning expressions of the human creative genius by world standards, comparable to the messages left by doomed civilizations in Mesoamerica or on Easter Island…of highest outstanding universal value.”




The Cultural Rock Arts in Hima Najran consists of rock art images made over millennia ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia’s other UNESCO sites include the most recently inscribed, the Hima Cultural Area, listed in 2021. It also consists of a substantial collection of rock art images made over 7,000 years ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country.

Historic Jeddah, inscribed by UNESCO in 2014, was established in the seventh century as the major port on the Red Sea and grew rapidly as the gateway for pilgrims to Makkah who arrived by sea. Jeddah, which developed into “a thriving multicultural centre” was “characterized by a distinctive architectural tradition, including tower houses built in the late 19th century by the city’s mercantile elites,” many of which can still be seen today. 




Jeddah's old village of Al Balad, one of the UNESCO world heritage sites in the Kingdom, is host to plenty of old buildings. (Shutterstock photo)

Al-Ahsa, a “serial cultural landscape” in the Eastern Province, is home to the world’s largest, and almost certainly oldest, oasis, a sprawling collection of 12 separate elements and 2.5 million palm trees scattered over a total area of 85 square kilometers.

Listed by UNESCO in 2018 as “an evolving cultural landscape,” Al-Ahsa “preserves material traces representative of all the stages of the oasis history, since its origins in the Neolithic to the present.”

Al-Ahsa, which lies between the rock desert of Al-Ghawar to the west and the sand dunes of the Al-Jafurah desert to the east, is associated with the Dilmun civilization that flourished in the third millennium B.C. in what is now eastern Saudi Arabia. Pottery finds from the Ubaid period, dating back roughly 7,000 years, also suggest the Al-Ahsa region may have been among the first in eastern Arabia to have been settled by humans.




Al-Ahsa governorate in the Eastern Province boasts of the largest date-palm oasis in the world. (Supplied)

Pride of place, in the hearts of Saudis at least, must go to the Turaif district of Diriyah, which is considered the birthplace of the Kingdom and was listed by UNESCO in 2010. 

Nestling in a bend of the Wadi Hanifah, a few kilometers northwest of the modern metropolis of Riyadh, are the preserved remains of a breathtaking collection of mud-brick palaces, houses and mosques, “the pre-eminent example of Najdi architectural style, a significant constructive tradition that developed in central Arabia…and [contributed] to the world’s cultural diversity.”

First settled by the ancestors of the House of Saud in the 15th century, the oasis of Diriyah became the capital of the First Saudi State, established in 1744.

Diriyah was destroyed in 1818 after a six-year campaign by a vengeful Ottoman Empire, alarmed by the challenge posed by the First Saudi State to its grip on Arabia and the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

Ultimately, it was Al-Saud that would prevail, as history relates. In 1902, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, better known to the wider world as Ibn Saud, famously recaptured Riyadh, going on to unite the kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz in 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 




Diriyah, where the first Saudi state was founded 300 years ago, is being developed as an iconic tourist destination. (Supplied)

The Turaif district of nearby Diriyah, left in ruins by the Ottomans, would never be occupied again. Carefully preserved and protected, however, it is now the jewel in the crown of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest giga-projects — the development of the wider area by the Diriyah Gate Development Authority as “one of the most amazing cultural gathering places in the world.”

The $50 billion plan to transform Diriyah into a global historical, cultural and lifestyle destination will create 55,000 job opportunities and attract 27 million visitors every year. They will be able to immerse themselves in the history and culture of a kingdom that, in less than 300 years, has grown from an idea born in a small desert community to become one of the world’s most influential nations.

Awaiting visitors on the site of 7 square kilometers will be museums, galleries, world-class hotels, restaurants, shops, homes and educational and cultural facilities, all created in the traditional Najdi architectural style.

But at its heart will be Turaif, which, like so many of Saudi Arabia’s historic sites, is a priceless piece of the past now helping to shape the Kingdom’s future.


Saudi Arabia sponsors $1bn economic reform in Yemen

Saudi Arabia sponsors $1bn economic reform in Yemen
Updated 28 November 2022

Saudi Arabia sponsors $1bn economic reform in Yemen

Saudi Arabia sponsors $1bn economic reform in Yemen
  • AMF program to improve transparency in banking, financial and private sectors
  • Saudi Arabia has been lead donor to Yemen since 2001

RIYADH: Under the sponsorship of Saudi Arabia, the Arab Monetary Fund has signed a $1 billion agreement with the Yemeni government to revitalize its flagging economy.

The deal, signed in Riyadh, seeks to establish a comprehensive economic, financial and monetary reform program to improve governance and transparency, expand and diversify production and lower unemployment and poverty.

Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed Al-Jadaan said that the program will develop Yemen’s financial and banking sector, strengthen the role of the private sector and promote long-term economic development. 

The reform priorities for the government include developing public resources, controlling and rationalizing government spending, improving efficiency, and rehabilitating critical infrastructure in electricity, water and transport services. 

Priorities for the financial and banking sectors include developing a supervision system to improve transparency and accountability and bolstering services for small and medium businesses and youths and women in rural areas. It will also seek to boost digitalization and payment method flexibility.

The program says the private sector is a primary driver of sustainable economic growth, and key in paving the way for greater integration into the global economy, the flow of foreign investment, and the strengthening of international partnerships. 

The Yemeni government expressed interest in exploring opportunities for regional and international institutions to collaborate to support Yemeni economic reform. 

The agreement’s sponsorship by Saudi Arabia is an extension of the country's economic support for Yemen. The Kingdom gave the Central Bank of Yemen $1 billion in 2012 and $2 billion in 2018 to cover the import of basic food commodities. 

From 2001 to 2022, Saudi Arabia has led the list of donor countries to Yemen, providing 30 percent of total support.

 


Saudi, Egyptian interior ministers hold talks in Riyadh

Saudi, Egyptian interior ministers hold talks in Riyadh
Updated 27 November 2022

Saudi, Egyptian interior ministers hold talks in Riyadh

Saudi, Egyptian interior ministers hold talks in Riyadh
  • Cooperation agreement signed to combat crime

RIYADH: Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud held talks with his Egyptian counterpart Mahmoud Tawfiq in Riyadh on Sunday, the Saudi Press Agency reported. 

They discussed ways to improve security cooperation between their ministries. The talks also saw the signing of a cooperation agreement to combat crime.

Saudi attendees included Deputy Interior Minister Dr. Nasser bin Abdul Aziz Al-Dawood, Interior Ministry Undersecretary Dr. Hisham bin Abdulrahman Al-Faleh, Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Security Affairs Mohammed bin Muhanna Al-Muhanna, and Public Security Director Mohammed Al-Bassami.

Egyptian attendees included Adel Al-Sayed Abdulaziz Jaafar, head of the National Security Agency, and officials from the Interior Ministry.

 


Sustainable development of Saudi island will boost economy

Darin and Tarout is among the most archaeologically significant islands in Eastern Province. (SPA)
Darin and Tarout is among the most archaeologically significant islands in Eastern Province. (SPA)
Updated 28 November 2022

Sustainable development of Saudi island will boost economy

Darin and Tarout is among the most archaeologically significant islands in Eastern Province. (SPA)
  • Dr. Saad Dahlawi: 'The Kingdom is witnessing unprecedented economic and developmental growth and following the standards of sustainable development'

RIYADH: Economists and environmentalists say sustainable investment is important for an island north of Dammam allocated billions of riyals for development.

Experts told Arab News that the SR2.64 billion ($703 million) granted to Darin and Tarout island by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week has much potential to boost the Eastern Province’s economy.

Darin and Tarout is among the most archaeologically significant islands in the region, with evidence of 5,000 years of continuous human habitation and around a dozen heritage sites, including a fortress dating back hundreds of years.

Dr. Saad Dahlawi, Assistant Professor, Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University (L) and
Fahad Almutlaq, CEO of Sharqia Development Authority.

Officials aim to improve the quality of life for its 120,000 people while preserving its cultural and historical heritage, revitalizing its natural beauty sites and enhancing its tourism economy.

As much as 48 percent of its 32 sq. km area will be dedicated to public parks, waterfronts, roads, and facilities. The island hopes to boost the number of tourists to 1.36 million by 2030 and generate thousands of jobs.

HIGHLIGHT

Officials aim to improve the quality of life for its 120,000 people while preserving its cultural and historical heritage, revitalizing its natural beauty sites and enhancing its tourism economy.

“This project represents the first strategic works and initiatives done by the Eastern Region Development Authority,” said Eastern Province Development Authority CEO Fahad Al-Mutlaq.

He said that work would start next year on a program to gradually improve social and economic conditions after comprehensive studies were completed.

Fadhel Al-Buainain, a member of the Shura Council, said that the island had historical importance.

Fadhel Al-Buainain, member of the Saudi Economists Association and member of the Shoura Council (L) and Abdullah Al-Khuzam, member of the National Program for the Development of Handicrafts.

“Developing Darin Castle and Darin Airport as heritage tourist destinations will enhance the cultural side,” he said. “The establishment of the largest forest on the banks of the Gulf will contribute to enhancing the environmental goals of the Kingdom.

“If eco-hotels are developed in natural areas, this will be an important base for eco-tourism, which will support the economy of the island.”

Al-Buainain, who is also a member of the Saudi Economists Association, said that the development plan would make an important economic contribution to the region.

“Providing small and medium investment and employment opportunities will have an important socio-economic impact,” he said, adding that the development would contribute to achieving the goals of Vision 2030.

Dr. Saad Dahlawi, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Imam Abd al-Rahman bin Faisal University, said he believed that the development announcement came at the perfect time.

“The Kingdom is witnessing unprecedented economic and developmental growth and following the standards of sustainable development,” he said.

Dahlawi added however that project leaders needed to assess impacts on the environment and especially on marine life to ensure that endangered species are not put at further risk.

“Such a study would provide decision-makers with a clear picture of how to implement the project sustainably,” he said.

Dahlawi said it was important to follow international environmental standards, as well as the standards and requirements of the National Center for Environmental Compliance, to avoid any damage to the environment.

Abdullah Al-Khuzam, a member of The National Handicraft Development Program, said the intention to turn Darin Airport into a heritage museum “means that a new prosperity period is being written on one of the oldest inhabited islands in the Arabian Gulf.”

He said that the museum and planned art festivals would help present “our ancient culture and civilization to the world.”

 

 


University signs deal to boost Saudi student fitness

University signs deal to boost Saudi student fitness
Updated 28 November 2022

University signs deal to boost Saudi student fitness

University signs deal to boost Saudi student fitness
  • The SFA is the main body responsible for promoting a healthy lifestyle in the Kingdom by providing sports activities

JEDDAH: The Saudi Sports for All Federation has signed a deal with the Arab Open University in Riyadh to cooperate on creating sports programs that will help build a healthy and active society.

Both organizations will also work together to promote sports culture and community sports to build a healthy lifestyle among the AOU’s students.

The federation will use the university’s sports facilities to launch initiatives and sports groups, organize community events and motivate students to take part.

SFA President Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal said the agreement was part of a strategy to work with partners and improve the health of the nation.

“We will also cooperate with the university in research, studies, data and statistics to attract a large number of university students to participate in sports and physical activities. This will help achieve our strategic objectives,” he said.

AOU Rector Ali Al-Shahrani said he was pleased to have signed the agreement.

“We seek to provide an integrated educational environment for our students by launching initiatives, sports events, and community programs within the university’s facilities. This agreement will help promote a sports culture among our students.

“We aim to provide multiple opportunities for people to participate in sports and physical activity in order to promote a healthy lifestyle and prevent diseases.”

The SFA is the main body responsible for promoting a healthy lifestyle in the Kingdom by providing sports activities. Its priorities are education, community, volunteering, fitness and health, campaigns, and promotions for people of all ages.

The AOU operates in nine Arab countries. It was founded in 1996 by Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz as a nonprofit institution and a nontraditional education academic entity. It focuses on scientific, social and cultural subjects.

In 2002, it worked with the Open University in the UK to transform into an integrated institution.

 


Saudi Arabia’s largest e-sports festival kick starts in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia’s largest e-sports festival kick starts in Riyadh
Updated 27 November 2022

Saudi Arabia’s largest e-sports festival kick starts in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia’s largest e-sports festival kick starts in Riyadh
  • RUSH event allows video-game aficionados to experience latest tech

RIYADH: The RUSH festival, the largest event for virtual sports and games, opened at the Riyadh Front on Saturday as part of the Riyadh Season of activities.

Over five days, it will provide gamers with the best-known games and real-life experiences.

They will get the chance to play real games such as “Fortnite,” “FIFA,” and “Valorant.” The event will also bring together the best international teams so that the biggest tournaments and direct qualifiers can be held on the e-sports stage.

Representatives of the 25 E-Sport organization greeted fans at the event’s meet-and-greet booth.

Aoun, the organization’s director of operations, told Arab News: “We have content makers and professional players in all games, and we came to meet the audience here.”

HIGHLIGHT

Over five days, the RUSH festival will provide gamers with the best-known games and real-life experiences. They will get the chance to play real games such as ‘Fortnite,’ ‘FIFA,’ and ‘Valorant.’

The festival aims to provide fun video games, competitions, and challenges through direct tournaments with prizes, and includes live entertainment shows, DJ performances, an augmented reality experience, and a cosplay competition.

The Valar Club booth was promoting e-sports for women.

Malak Al-Qahtani, founder of Valar Club, told Arab News: “Valar Club is the first licensed women’s club from the federation’s electronic sports, and our goal is to help female Saudi players, as they aspire to the world, and help with their training.”

Saudi YouTuber Pika Loli travelled from Jeddah to attend the event.

“This event brings together most of the YouTubers and gamers, and it is a good opportunity to get to know each other, and it will increase our followers and grow the channel on YouTube.”

Some of the cosplayers were dressed as video game characters.

Abdulelah Al-Qahtani said: “Today we are dressed as characters from the ‘Genshin Impact’ game, and I think this is so good that Saudi Arabia brought up a hidden community, like cosplayers and gamers.”

With a focus on the whole of the gaming industry, from console and PC gaming to mobile and e-sports, the RUSH festival aims to give gaming aficionados the opportunity to access and experience the latest tech and the chance to interact with each other in real life, and online.

Tickets for the event are available via https://riyadhseason.sa/event-details-en.html?id=599/en_RUSH.