The treasures are strewn over a swath of Saudi Arabia bigger than Lake Ontario, rising from the desert: a rambling Nabataean necropolis, a field of soaring stone pillars, a lonely Ottoman railway station, and graffiti, lots of it, inscribed over millennia on honey-coloured boulders and red mountain rock.
It is a unique and unruly mix of natural beauty and ruins that trace thousands of years of human settlement and the caravan routes of incense traders and pilgrims. But the site has struggled to find an audience beyond this cosseted kingdom, apart from the locals, intrepid tourists and archaeologists who have been sifting through the area’s civilisational silt for years. Now, Saudi Arabia’s leaders say they have finally decided to let the world in.
The attractions, around the city of Al-Ula, are the cornerstone of a planned effort to invite foreign tourists to the kingdom, beyond the millions of religious pilgrims who visit Saudi Arabia’s holy sites every year. Like many changes underway in the country, the plan is mostly aimed at boosting the economy by tapping sources of revenue beyond oil.
The ambitious initiative, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would be challenging in the best of times – relying on the government to abandon its wariness of foreign visitors and on the outside world to revise its perceptions of Saudi Arabia as a forbiddingly conservative society.
But recently, the challenge has only become more acute. The government’s crackdown on dissidents and perceived enemies has undermined its own aspirations for greater openness. The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in October led to international criticism of the crackdown and of the crown prince, who was widely blamed for ordering the killing. Saudi Arabia says Mohammed did not know about the plot, although it involved his most senior aides.
After the killing, some foreign companies and organizations distanced themselves from Mohammed’s initiatives, including projects promoting the arts, tourism and culture that have been embraced by thousands of Saudis.
“Tourism has great potential in the kingdom because it is so underdeveloped,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Saudis are especially hungry for more public spaces and cultural growth. But there are social barriers and fears to overcome in attracting an international clientele.”
“Jailing women activists doesn’t help,” she said, referring to the nearly eight-month detention without trial of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights advocates. “Brutally killing a prominent journalist doesn’t help.”
Saudi officials are pressing ahead with the crown prince’s initiatives and hoping that high-profile cultural events might temper the criticism from abroad. The government recently introduced an electronic visa system that allowed hundreds of foreign visitors in December to attend a motor-sports event in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that included concerts by Western and Arab musicians.
When Laila Nehme, a senior research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research, began working at the site 16 years ago, “there was nobody there,” she said. “The site was almost virgin. It’s a dream for an archaeologist.”
Over that time, she and other archaeologists established that the area was the southernmost outpost of the Roman Empire, extending the empire’s boundaries by almost 200 miles. By studying 150 inscriptions in the area dating to the 3rd century, they found evidence of the transition of Nabataean script into Arabic.
People in Saudi Arabia were already well aware of the site, which is mentioned in the Koran. “What is new to them is this idea that it is part of their history, part of their national heritage,” Nehmé said. “It will take a little more time.”
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