Saudi heritage revival too late to save many cultural treasures

Wed Jun 22, 2016 12:03pm EDT
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By Angus McDowall

ASIR, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - If Rijal Almaa, a stone village tucked into a fold of Saudi Arabia's southern mountains, showcases the polished end-point of new efforts in the kingdom to preserve cultural heritage, the hamlet of Watan Emsoudah represents the difficulties faced.

Its low-covered alleyways lie thick with the debris of decades of abandonment, some stone house roofs have caved in and thistles grow high between the hamlet's walls, but near the entrance three men are working to save a house.

Saudi Arabia has allocated nearly $1 billion to preserve its heritage in a new reform plan, but after decades of neglect, and in some cases deliberate destruction, saving its cultural treasures will prove complex and expensive.

While that money was allocated in a National Transformation Programme unveiled this month, no details were given as to how it would be spent and the only tourism projects listed in the plan were for a few large sites.

"For maybe 40 years we stopped using these old houses and every five years you need to rehabilitate them," said Abdulaziz al-Ghanem representative of Asir's architectural heritage center at the government's General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. "I hope we get more money. We need it."

Watan Emsoudah is one of around 4,000 old villages in Asir Province in the kingdom's southwest and the project to restore it to save architectural tradition and boost tourism is one of eight in the region by a local investor.

Rehabilitating the village, swaddled by terraced fields in a shallow bowl on a mountain plateau, will cost around 6 million riyals ($1.6 million), says Ibrahim al-Almiy, a former history teacher and the local investor behind these projects.

That high cost - for one tiny village in a country where most old dwellings were deserted for modern concrete houses after last century's oil boom - shows how little of its heritage Saudi Arabia may be able to protect even with new investment.   Continued...

Traditional old buildings stand in Asir Province, Saudi Arabia June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser