Cultural policy Heritage Saudi Arabia

A new awareness of conservation

The Kingdom is officially opening to tourism

A building in Al Balad, the historic centre of Jeddah, photographed by Filipino worker Arnel Villavicencio, 2013

The destruction in recent years of much of old Mecca, which dates back to the Ottoman empire and earlier, has aroused protests in the artistic community and beyond. It has been estimated that since 1985 about 95% of Mecca’s historic buildings have been demolished.

Now, however, the Saudi government is investing money in renovating around 30 of the country’s ­museums, and religious buildings in Mecca and Medina. “We’re serious about making tourism a major player in the economy and also in job creation,” says HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman, the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), and last December he inaugurated the Kingdom’s first tourism and hospitality college, in Riyadh.

According to Prince Sultan, tourism contributes 28% to the country’s economy, and last year, tourism revenues rose 10% to SR61.8bn ($16.5bn), but this is “tourism” of a special sort, most of it being the pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The new tourism will be largely non-religious, and in December the government announced that it would begin granting tourist visas to encourage foreign visitors (who will, however, still be barred from entering the two holy cities unless they are Muslims).

One of the potential tourist attractions is Al Balad, the historic centre of Jeddah, which SCTA is working to conserve. Among its landmarks are the city walls and gates, several historic mosques, the old, dense neighbourhoods with their intricate alley ways, and the souks. Many of these buildings have suffered neglect or fire damage over the past 50 years. Now the SCTA and the Jeddah municipality are conducting a study of the renovation required, and developing a maintenance plan of the kind that would make Al Balad eligible to be declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Unesco sets standards One of the problems thwarting the development of the historic centre is the private ownership of some of the buildings. Last December, the government’s Council of Ministers entrusted the SCTA with the task of issuing tourist visas on the basis of a number of regulations approved by the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs. Under these regulations, tourist areas are protected as public property and cannot be owned ­privately. Mohammed Al Amri, the executive manager of the SCTA says, “The municipality has only been able to purchase four buildings as yet, but these are not enough and certainly not significant considering the size of Al Balad.”

At a meeting of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in July 2011, Saudi’s bid to include Jeddah as a World Heritage Site was not put forward and Prince Sultan confirmed that the application had been withdrawn so that the area could be restored following flood damage.

Unesco’s Saudi representative, Ziyad Al-Dirais, says that the country needs “to have a longer-term plan in order to be able to rehabilitate and maintain the historic locations. It hopes to correct the situation and to propose Al Balad once again with Unesco.”

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of ten selection criteria. Al Balad meets at least two: it has outstanding examples of the types of architecture “that illustrate significant stages in human history”, and it “bears an exceptional testimony to cultural tradition”.

The SCTA resubmitted the application for Al Balad to Unesco this January and the World Heritage Committee is due to consider the application at its annual meeting in June.

A special report on Saudi Arabia appears in full in our May issue. Take out a subscription to The Art Newspaper and gain online access to the issue, including further news and features, or download our app from the App store and Google Play for free

Ahmad Angawi’s 2012 version of the old Ottoman map of the Ka’aba courtyard includes a bulldozer (bottom right) eating at its surrounding buildings, now demolished
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22 May 14
13:19 CET


Too little too late.

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