Saudi Arabia boosts its growth by investing in its cultural heritage

Saudi Arabia boosts its growth by investing in its cultural heritage
Saudi Arabia boosts its growth by investing in its cultural heritage

Gulf states looking to diversify their oil-dependent economies are pinning hopes on untapped heritage tourism to boost growth.
In Saudi Arabia, fascinating monuments that have long been impervious to global tourism are being promoted as itineraries for travelers searching for undiscovered sites.
Other countries in the region are already on the tourism map, working to refine their offerings away from sun and sea holidays towards visitors who seek to dive into the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Al-Ula Oasis in northwestern Saudi Arabia, the largest site of ancient Arab civilization found south of Jordan’s Petra, was opened to tourists in October after two years of renovation.
Al-Hajar, the first Saudi site registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List, displays 100 graves and elaborate façades that were carved out from the sandstone outcrops surrounding the city of Mada’in Saleh al-Nabatiyeh on the path of the Incense Trail, which reached its climax in the two centuries BC and after.
Nearby Dadan, a city dating back to the first millennium BC, is another destination prepared for tourists, along with rock engravings on Mount Ikma.
“When people think of Egypt, they think of the pyramids,” says Tim Power, an archeology consultant based in the Emirates. “Now the Saudi leadership wants them to think of Al-Ula, which is a positive image of the rich cultural heritage.”
The emergence of this multi-billion dollar sector has prompted Zayed University in Abu Dhabi to develop a master’s degree in heritage, development and entrepreneurship. Bauer, an advisor on the track, says the “MBA in Heritage Industry” reflects the growing demand in the market.
Much of this demand has been reinforced by the social and economic openness of the Crown Prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who identified the heritage industry and the cultural sector as two opportunities to diversify the economy away from oil, as well as a way to form a common national identity for the growing youth of Saudi Arabia.
On the outskirts of Riyadh, Ad Diriyah, the birthplace of the House of Saud, is being transformed into a cultural destination as part of a $ 17 billion project called “Diriyah Gate”. In this historic capital, Al-Turaif neighborhood will open to the public next January, which reveals several kilometers of corridors filled with hundreds of restored buildings, as well as galleries and museums and galleries that monitor the history of the capital.
“The Saudis want Diriyah, the kingdom’s spiritual cradle, to occupy its place among the great heritage sites in the world,” says Power. “They say our culture is closely related to the world.”
The rush to cultural tourism is emerging elsewhere in the Gulf. Ras Al Khaimah, in the northernmost part of the Emirates, has always positioned itself as a destination to enjoy the sun and the sea with the added benefit of its varied terrain, including the most impressive mountain ranges in the Emirates.
With global tourism affected by the Coronavirus, Ras Al Khaimah has turned into the most sought-after destination locally during the pandemic. The number of tourists decreased by only 35 per cent between January and August, as UAE residents spending their holidays in the emirate were replaced by foreign visitors.
“What made us attractive was the nature and the sprawling spaces that make social distancing comfortable. We believe the cultural aspect is an essential part of the appeal,” said Raki Phillips, CEO of the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority.
Phillips added that the emirate is now going beyond nature-driven adventure tourism, including the world’s longest zipline, to shine a light on the emirate’s history.
For years, the government has been collecting information, restoring sites, and creating expertise to benefit from a history dating back to the first settlers 7,000 years ago.
Al-Jazirah Al-Hamra, abandoned since the 1960s, is the last established traditional village in the Emirates. Restored to showcase the coral stone architecture of the coastal regions of the Gulf, it offers visitors a quiet glimpse into life before the discovery of oil, with a fortress and ornate homes owned by pearl merchants.
A pearl farm in a lake located below the Hajar Mountains in Ras Al Khaimah has proven to be one of the emirate’s fastest growing attractions. In it, visitors learn about the history of pearling, which ended in the thirties of the last century with the invention of artificial pearls.
Phillips believes that over time, more than 20 percent of the emirate’s tourism offer will be cultural. “Ras al-Khaimah was set up for (tourist) adventures. Now our diversity and culture make up a large part of tourism there,” he says.
Qal’at al-Bahrain is another Gulf site that must be visited. Under this unique example of a Portuguese fort, visitors can see archaeological discoveries unearthed from the land, which trace the entire history of the Gulf states, dating back to the period from the Greco-Roman period until the Bronze Age.
Bahla Oasis in Oman is another site that a tourist should visit. Its magnificent castle forms the predominant part of it and dates back to the 13th century. The walled city of Bahla, filled with mud-brick houses, was once the capital of the Sultanate, and is a prominent example of medieval Islamic architecture, offering practical applications on historical water engineering alongside that.
The Al Ain Oasis in the UAE is also a site where a visit to the Gulf cannot be completed without seeing it. Within the garden city of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain Oasis dates back 4,500 years, when its first inhabitants tamed the desert by cultivating traditional aflaj. Here visitors can stroll through shaded walkways under a canopy of 147,000 palm trees.

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