Saudi Arabia's first site on Unesco's World Heritage List is a call to protect historic ruins across the peninsula.
Ruins hold lesson for Gulf region
UNITED NATIONS // Archaeologists have hailed the inclusion of Saudi Arabia's first site on Unesco's World Heritage List as a call to afford greater protection to historic ruins across the peninsula. The ancient Nabatean tomb complex of Mada'in Saleh was endorsed by the Unesco heritage committee as a world asset of "outstanding universal value" during the UN body's annual meet in Quebec City this week.
But archaeologists have questioned the commitment to preserving heritage in the kingdom, where hardline Wahhabi clerics have seen some of Mecca and Medina's early Islamic sites levelled for fear of promoting idolatry. Derek Kennet, a lecturer at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said many Saudi ruins had been bulldozed to make way for development, while those from the pre-Islamic era - referred to as jahiliyyah, or the "days of ignorance" - were classed as "unimportant in world history" by a minority.
"There are tensions in Saudi, but it is by no means the worst Gulf country," said Dr Kennet, a member of the steering committee of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, an annual archaeology meeting. "Aside from these religious factors, there is a straightforward tension between maintaining historic sites and having space to build homes for families. "Having a Unesco listing is a good political stick for officials to have and be able to say to developers that their sites are of international importance and worth protecting."
Saudi officials fought a lengthy campaign to secure their first inscription, convincing the 21-member World Heritage Committee in Canada that they will strive to protect the ancient ruins. Their desert site, known locally as al Hijr or "rocky place", features 111 monumental tombs carved by the Nabateans across a vast area from the first century BC to the first century AD. The rock-hewn wonder sat along a key route for ancient perfume traders and is mentioned in the Quran, although some modern-day Muslims regard it as a cursed place.
Michael MacDonald, a fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Oxford, rates it as "one of the most impressive and extraordinary" sites he has studied in a lengthy archaeology career - second only to Petra as an example of Nabatean ingenuity. Veronique Dauge, head of the Arab states unit in Unesco's World Heritage Centre, said the preservers of Saudi relics had achieved a positive result although there is "still room for improvement" in the kingdom.
"This inscription and the presence of Saudi Arabia in the convention shows rising awareness about heritage preservation and a very strong commitment from the authorities to safeguard their history," Ms Dauge said. Abdullatif Sallam, chargé d'affaires of Saudi Arabia's UN mission, said the Unesco listing bore testament to the "historical and cultural aspect of Saudi Arabia" but would not comment on the preservation of other ruins.
Mada'in Saleh was one of 27 sites to join the World Heritage List, along with Yemen's wildlife-rich Socotra archipelago, some Armenian monasteries in Iran and holy Bahaí sites in Israel. After the conclusion of the Unesco meeting on Tuesday, the list now comprises 878 sites in 145 countries. The endorsement of Saudi Arabia's first site on the list means Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and Oman have all achieved the coveted Unesco status, leaving Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE as the only Arabian countries without an inscription.
The UAE has placed Al Ain on its tentative list and is expected to appear before the committee in 2011. Meanwhile, Qatar hopes to include the town and fort ruins at Al Zubarah and a scenic salt water inlet called Khor al Adaid. Rashad Mohammed Bukhash, Dubai Municipality's director of architectural heritage projects, attended the Quebec meet to ready his Unesco application for the wind-tower districts of Bastakiya and Shindagha.
Although archaeologists laud the increasing importance Gulf governments are affording to historic remains, Dr Kennet, who once worked as an archaeologist in Ras al Khaimah, warns that a Unesco accolade can also harm conservation efforts. "The problem is that it only protects the tip of the iceberg," Dr Kennet said. "It doesn't provide any protection to the smaller sites which are potentially of great importance and local interest, but are never going to make it on to a list of monuments of global significance alongside the Taj Mahal and Egypt's pyramids. Unesco helps, but it's not a solution."