quotes The need for heritage conservation in Saudi Arabia and beyond

17 April 2024
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Updated 17 April 2024

The need for heritage conservation in Saudi Arabia and beyond

Increasing people’s awareness of cultural and historic landmarks is an important step toward ensuring the long-term conservation of these sites, helping to drive the urgent need for their protection.

In recent years, AlUla and Saudi Arabia have emerged as hotbeds of cultural discovery and touristic exploration. With six UNESCO World Heritage Sites within its borders, the Kingdom is both a cultural custodian and a welcoming host.

It is a role the country takes seriously, particularly as visitors to AlUla alone are projected to reach more than 290,000 this year, with an estimated 2 million annually by 2035. Faced with a rising tide of culturally curious tourists, the need to preserve our history and conserve our landmarks is more pressing than ever.

As we mark International Day for Monuments and Sites on April 18, we recognize that there is much to gain if our conservation efforts are done right — and much to lose if not.

Cultural appreciation

Launched earlier this year, the Royal Commission For AlUla’s I Care campaign emphasizes long-term cultural conservation, not just to protect monuments, but also to boost economic growth and quality of life.

Aligned with Vision 2030, I Care fosters appreciation of AlUla’s ancient history and living heritage, nurturing within our community a responsibility to safeguard and celebrate our cultural assets.

Whether tangible or intangible, AlUla’s cultural ecosystem is at the heart of its appeal. Ongoing archaeological digs deepen its legacy as a crossroads for human history, while its social traditions and customs continue to intrigue a global audience.

From Jabal Ikmah’s inclusion on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register to the Rawi storytellers reviving traditional folklore and poetry, the world’s fascination with the culture and heritage of northwest Arabia shows no sign of slowing.

RCU’s appreciation of our history is echoed in the wider Saudi community’s connection to nationally significant cultural and heritage sites. Key symbols of identity and pride, the I Care campaign revealed people’s desire to preserve landmarks for future generations and the socioeconomic benefits they provide.

However, as visitor numbers increase, RCU, like all stewards of heritage destinations, finds itself balancing conservation with the risks of over-exposure. As such, we are committed to “light touch” tourism that caps visitor capacity at levels that, while substantial, remain manageable and sustainable.

We have seen in places such as Venice and Barcelona that an oversaturation of cultural sites risks eroding their assets. It increases the chances of damage or neglect — either malicious or accidental — diminishing their uniqueness. This is a path we are not prepared to take. 

Sharing legacy

In AlUla and KSA, we have an opportunity to build on our role as leaders in cultural and heritage conservation.

Before RCU’s work began, people were largely unaware of AlUla. Its stories and monuments were at risk of being forgotten. Today, a world without Hegra; without archeological discoveries from AlUla, Tayma, and Khaybar; and without the knowledge of the Dadanite, Lihyanite, and Nabataean peoples, seems unthinkable.

I Care is our call to action: to safeguard vital, yet fragile, symbols of human history and heritage the world over.

A project without a defined end, it encourages us to unlock culture’s vast potential, to safeguard heritage by encouraging people to engage with their past. It supports RCU’s role as a proud custodian of history and empowers the Kingdom’s stewardship of our evolving cultural legacy.

I Care shows that the cultural landscape of AlUla, Saudi Arabia, and beyond is a rich source of inspiration, unity, and knowledge. It is also a privilege we cannot afford to take for granted.

Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani is the executive director of archeology, conservation and collections at the Royal Commission for AlUla.