Abu Dhabi // Arab countries should put forward more cultural traditions for inclusion on a worldwide protection register or risk them dying out, delegates to a Unesco conference warned yesterday. More than 100 applications had been made for admission this year to the "representative list" of the world's intangible, or living, heritage, but there was a geographical imbalance, with many of the bids from Asia, said Francoise Rivière, representing the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
"Africa and Arab states are far behind all regions," Ms Rivière said. "A list called 'representative' cannot display such an imbalance between regions or within a region." She was speaking at the start of a five-day meeting in Abu Dhabi during which additions will be made to the list. Out of a total 280 of applications received for the list so far, including those to be considered at next year's meeting, only two Arab countries, the UAE and Oman, have submitted nominations.
The UAE did not submit an application to be considered for the list this year, but was among 12 nations that put forward the traditional sport of falconry for consideration in next year's list. It also plans to put forward two types of traditional dancing. It is hoped that inclusion on the list, which currently has 90 "cultural elements", will encourage young people to take part in the traditions. Some of the nominated elements may also be awarded Unesco funding.
Ms Rivière called on delegates to consider how to address the regional imbalance, which could take as long as a decade to redress. She suggested that countries be limited to putting forward three applications per year. Though Unesco has protected physical heritage, such as historic monuments and archaeological sites, since the 1970s, "intangible heritage" was relatively neglected until recently.
The first binding international convention to protect the world's living heritage was only signed in 2003. Delegates from more than 100 nations are attending the meeting, where, for the first time, cultural traditions at severe risk will be added to an "urgent safeguarding list". It was disclosed that a new "centre for music in the Islamic world" will be set up in Abu Dhabi. The centre would make traditional compositions and musical material available to artists and researchers, said Dr Nasser al Hamiri, head of the intangible heritage department of Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). A formal announcement would be made on Saturday.
"The most important part of this gathering is the fact that it will be a promotion for intangible heritage in the UAE," said Dr al Hamiri. "The people will get to know more about cultural heritage and learn that people across the world are celebrating their heritage." Globalisation, urban living, the decline of the traditional economy and media such as television, internet and radio had increased the threat to traditional pastimes and knowledge, making it essential that young people were encouraged to participate before such heritage was lost, he said.
In the opening address, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun, the chairman of Adach, highlighted the national strategies the UAE had undertaken to protect its heritage. "Heritage in the UAE is at the forefront in all plans and strategies," he said. "Its vividness and eternal human values enhance achievements and open the way towards a greater good." He pointed to the recording and preservation of the Emirates' cultural heritage through listing and archiving, research papers, and audio visual recordings.
Olabiyi Yai, the chairman of Unesco's executive board, said: "Living, or intangible, heritage anchors our sense and consciousness of identity and continuity, renewal and transformation so essential to the life of all societies, and is the real mainspring of the world's cultural diversity. "These living heritages are sediments of generations of wisdoms, values and traditional knowledge, unparalleled legacies, precious to inspire us on ways to face the challenges the world is witnessing today."