Saudi Arabia's Bid to Protect pre-Islamic Sites Risks Backlash
Saudi Arabia is preserving pre-Islamic heritage sites as the reclusive kingdom tries to open up.
Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam that emerged in Saudi Arabia some 250 years ago, regards the veneration of objects, especially those predating the Prophet Mohammedâs life in the seventh century, as tantamount to idolatry, and has advocated their neglect or outright destruction.
But under reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has vowed to promote a more moderate form of Islam and loosened strict social rules like a ban on women driving, the kingdom has allocated $1 billion to preserve its heritage.
Many of t he cultural areas date back thousands of years and the attention given to them could risk a possible backlash from religious fundamentalists.
âNational heritage wasnât an easy trip, to get people to reflect and go back, especially the antiquities. All the discussions that were about antiquity â" this is not Islamic, this is Islamic â" this is I think behind us now,â said Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.
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The 62-year-old royal, a son of the king and an older half-brother of the crown prince, told Reuters in a recent interview about ongoing cooperation with senior Muslim scholars including bimonthly discussions with the Grand Mufti, the kingdomâs top religious figure, about the latest âdiscoveriesâ.
Those include Al-Ahsa, one of the worldâs largest natural agricultural oases, which became the countryâs fifth UNESCO World Heritage site last month.
In addition to fresh- and hot-water springs and vast tracks of date palms, the 10,000 hectare (25,000 acre) region holds archaeological sites dating to the Neolithic period.
Another UNESCO site, Madain Saleh, is a 2,000-year-old city carved into the rocks of the northern desert b y the Nabateans, the pre-Islamic Arab civilization that also built Petra in neighboring Jordan. It is now the center of a multibillion dollar tourism project the authorities are developing with French support.
âI believe you cannot understand Islam as a great religion if you are dismissing completely what happened before Islam,â Prince Sultan said.
âThatâs why we focused on hundreds of pre-Islamic sites, prehistory â" because this is a story that cannot be understood without being looked at in its own holistic and complete sense.â
He said up to 150 important sites had been intentionally destroyed or lost to urban development before the government adopted its new policy of protecting pre-Islamic monuments. SCTH is dispersing soft loans to municipalities to develop heritage locations and preparing another 10 sites for UNESCO recognition.
Saudi Arabia hopes reviving such sites will bolster national identity while attracting tourists - local and foreign â" as part of a bid to diversify the economy of the worldâs top oil exporter away from crude. Reforms aim to lift total tourism spending to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015.
Saudi Arabia is home to more than 10 million foreign workers and family members, and grants more than 6 million special visas a year for foreigners to attend the annual Hajj and other Muslim pilgrimages. But it does not offer regular tourist visas.< p>Plans to admit tourists have been discussed for years but have not come to fruition due to sluggish bureaucracy and concern over conservative sentiment. Source: Google News Saudi Arabia | Netizen 24 Saudi Arabia