Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

October 18, 2015

Saudi Arabia’s Budding Attention to Museums

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

16 October 2015

Tabuk – Standing next to a huge shopping mall in the heart of Tabuk, about 500 km north of Medina, are 13 re­furbished historic struc­tures boasting traditional Hejazi ar­chitecture. The buildings are mostly empty but in a year the Saudi Com­mission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) expects the site to be bus­tling with tourists.

The dusty patch of land was once the promising Hejaz Railway station established in 1906. It was to be part of an important trade and haj rail route from Damascus to Tabuk and on to Medina and Mecca.

However, the nearly 1,500-km distance, the harsh environment and T.E. Lawrence’s Arab army during World War I spelled doom for the railroad. The tracks ended ingloriously in Medina following numerous attacks by Lawrence to disrupt Ottoman attempts to con­trol the region. The railway never operated after 1918.

The SCTA is setting its sights on preserving historic treasures and in­troducing Saudis to the kingdom’s past. Tabuk’s Hejaz station stands testament to Saudi Arabia’s gam­ble that Saudis and foreign visitors will have an interest in events that shaped the kingdom.

Saudi authorities also hope to preserve pre-Islamic sites, particu­larly in the north-west, where there is evidence that Egyptians from the west established trade in the Tabuk region.

It is not an easy task. Yaroub H. al- Ali, manager of archaeology at the Tabuk Antiquities Office, said the commission is working to “slowly introduce Saudis to the concept of museums” and other historic ven­ues.

“We plan to build museums around the country and we have one already under way here in Tabuk,” Ali said.

A testament to the country’s am­bitions is a state-of-the-art, two-sto­rey museum on the Tabuk railway station grounds that is scheduled for completion in October 2016. Ali promises that exhibits on regional archaeological findings will com­plement the Hejaz Railway history.

“We have a (locomotive) and rail­way car housed in one building with exhibits and another railway build­ing is reserved as a handicrafts cen­tre that will have traditional Arab arts and crafts,” Ali said.

The Tabuk project is part of the vision of Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, secretary-general of the Commission for Tourism and An­tiquities. He announced in 2012 that six museums were being construct­ed in Saudi Arabia with six more planned.

“I would like to urge the citizens to preserve this important national wealth,” Prince Sultan said when he inspected archaeological sites in Tayma, 260 km south-west of Tabuk.

Prince Sultan’s statement points to a changing attitude in a country that has long been indifferent to the destruction of historic sites. In re­cent years, Saudi authorities asked German archaeologists to join re­searchers from King Saud Univer­sity to excavate Islamic and pre-Is­lamic sites in Tayma.

In 2010, the commission an­nounced that archaeologists dis­covered an inscription carved in a rock referring to Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III and dating between 1185-1153BC. The discovery points to evidence that Tabuk and Tayma were part of an important route linking the Nile valley with north-west Arabia. About 30 km from Tayma numerous inscriptions be­longing to the pre-Islamic Thamud tribes have been excavated.

However, the commission must sell history as an educational pro­cess and family activity to Saudis. Visiting museums is not a concept typically ingrained in Saudis, whose sense of history and place rarely extend to before the birth of the Prophet Mohammad.

Saudi Arabia since 2010 has be­gun promoting domestic tourism followed by a push to encourage Muslims from neighbouring coun­tries to visit. Although efforts to attract non-Muslim foreign tour­ists have been inconsistent, tourist company owners are hopeful that visa regulations will loosen to draw more tourists and boost the regional economy.

Tabuk officials see tourism as part of the solution as Saudi Arabia at­tempts to wean itself from oil as a major source of revenue. In 2013, about 392,000 people were em­ployed in the country in tourism-related jobs, including employment indirectly supported by the tourism industry. An estimated $6.4 billion were invested in the Saudi tourism industry. Investments are projected to reach $10.6 billion by 2024, ac­cording to a 2014 World Travel & Tourism report.

Hatim Al-Jalawi owns a private museum and operates Tabuk Tour­ist Sights, which provides bus tours of the region. His museum features an eclectic collection of Arabian peninsula artefacts ranging from 18th- and 19th-century firearms to antique household items. He dis­plays artefacts from a Jewish com­munity believed to have existed near Tayma. On the grounds are a restored mud brick house and dio­ramas of Saudi households from the past.

“Private museums could use some help in cataloguing and pre­serving collections like these,” said Jalawi, who indicated that he would welcome government expertise in handling his collection.

Still, Jalawi has forged a relation­ship with the Antiquities Office to bring visitors to the Tabuk Castle, which was restored in 1992, across the street from his museum. He has a special interest in giving Western­ers the VIP treatment by offering them Arabic coffee and dates while visiting the castle to introduce them to Saudi culture and hospitality.

Wael Alkhalid, a tourism com­mission guide who takes videos of the Tabuk region and posts them online, said the new museum and railway station, nearby archaeo­logical sites and restoration along Prince Fahd bin Sultan Road in the Old Quarter of the city puts Tabuk in a position to be a major tourist destination.

“Tabuk has a lot to offer,” Alkhalid said. “It’s a remote city but it has many things that other cities don’t have. Tabuk people are very warm and friendly. They would welcome visitors from anywhere.”

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