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Abdulelah Al-Tokhais

May 11th, 2020

Managing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia: Contribution and Future Directions

1 comment | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Abdulelah Al-Tokhais

May 11th, 2020

Managing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia: Contribution and Future Directions

1 comment | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

by Abdulelah Al-Tokhais

Qasr al-Farid, a tomb in the Mada’in Saleh archaeological site in Al-`Ula, Saudi Arabia. Source: Richard Hargas, CC

The World Heritage Convention (WHC) is considered the most successful international heritage conservation program. All state members must commit to apply the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention for sites to be inscribed within the World Heritage List (WHL). The WHC encourages state members to inscribe sites with exceptional universal values in the WHL in order to safeguard non-renewable cultural and natural resources important to current and future generations. UNESCO has encouraged the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to develop and update national and local legislations in order to keep up with international heritage conservation and management practices.

The heritage conservation and management practices of Saudi Arabia have experienced difficulties due to the complexity of overlapping roles and responsibilities implementing national laws and regulations. The kingdom has devoted most of its heritage conservation efforts and resources to the archaeological excavation, surveying and documentation of sites with traces of ancient societies in Arabia. Over the past five decades, this has resulted in archaeological discoveries registering more than 10,000 historical sites in the National Antiquities Register. Giving the size and the scattered distribution of heritage sites throughout the country, promoting these sites has been a difficult task. To compound the matter, having this massive area managed solely by governmental entities was a challenge as local initiatives and NGO involvement was limited. As a result, many heritage sites were fenced off without utilisation, promotion or interpretation. Due to the absence of implementing conservation laws and regulations in some areas, urban heritage sites were exposed to deterioration, demolition, vandalism and uncontrolled visitor behaviour.

A major step toward advanced heritage conservation practices occurred in 2003 when the Antiquities and Museums Agency, responsible for heritage and antiquities under the Ministry of Education, integrated into the Saudi Commission for Tourism (now the Ministry of Tourism). The Saudi Commission for Tourism was established in 2000 to be the first government body responsible for tourism strategies, regulations, and planning. This provided heritage sector with more resources to facilitate historic preservation, considering cultural heritage is the leading segment of tourism for destinations in the Middle East. Simultaneously, the wealth of heritage sites in Saudi Arabia encouraged Saudi authorities to inscribe sites in the UNESCO WHL to increase international awareness of Saudi heritage as part of human history. Saudi Arabia currently has five World Heritage sites inscribed in the list, namely Al-Ahsa Oasis, Al-Hijr Archaeological Site, At-Turaif District of ad-Dir’iyah, historic Jeddah, and the rock art of the Hail Region. Inscribing these sites proved problematic as Saudi Arabia faced difficulties meeting the WHC operational guidelines.

The WHC assisted Saudi authorities with reinforcing the conservation and management strategies of heritage sites, especially by setting up reporting systems and states of conservation to comply with the convention’s operational guidelines. In addition, the convention assisted in improving the effectiveness of site planning and management even though there is variation in management and conservation practices among the sites. This was crucial due to the diversity in the types of heritage sites, such as cultural landscape in addition to the complexity in managing heritage sites with shared or overlapping roles and responsibilities from different government authorities. For example, various stakeholders came together to develop management plans to control urban expansion and natural resource exploitation in the Al-Ahsa Oasis, the largest palm tree oasis in the world. The management plans have aimed to assist local communities in sustaining the non-renewable resources in addition to preserving the cultural landscape of the site.

Along with the improvement in the management and planning of heritage sites, sites inscription also attracted financial support for the historic preservation of sites that needed urgent conservation initiatives, such as historic Jeddah. Historical structures in historic Jeddah were collapsing due to lack of maintenance and increased decay. Moreover, the inscription played an important role in defining centres and buffer zones of urban heritage sites and revitalising historic sites such as ad-Dir’iyah, turning into a living heritage museum, and converting historic Jeddah into a hub for art, events and festivals.

In addition to the revitalisation of the urban heritage sites, the WHSs in rural areas have assisted their local communities in revitalising their handicrafts. Development in local handicrafts has been linked to the growth of tourism in the inscribed sites as it draws additional tourists into rural areas. This has empowered the local communities surrounding rural WHSs economically and increased their awareness of heritage conservation. Sites in remote areas such as Al-Hijr have recently started to involve locals in their protection and conservation programs. As documented by other WHSs around the world, heritage conservation after WHS designation has been found to increase locals’ sense of belonging and attachment to the site. Saudi Arabia is working to develop cultural heritage tourism that aims to establish community citizenship and pride through the existing heritage to be part of the citizens’ identity.

However, with the rapid development of tourism projects, managers need to monitor visitors and their attitudes in order to enhance tourist experiences, especially through providing visitors’ facilities and information services. Simultaneously, it is important to protect the fragile structures from damage due to uncontrolled behaviour of a growing number of locals and international visitors. It has been reported that issues related to uncontrolled tourist behaviour have arisen at WHSs, especially in remote areas that lack service infrastructure. In line with this, a capacity monitoring system is needed to help manage the influx of visitors to WHSs and prevent disturbances of the surrounding communities.

In terms of the local communities that live in or around WHSs, they need to be involved not only in the conservation initiatives, but also in the management and tourism planning process. To sustain a site and its surroundings includes the involvement of stakeholders in the development and decision-making processes to avoid future conflicts within current or future nominated sites. This is critical to meet local communities’ needs and interest in tourism without compromising cultural and natural heritage. In addition, tourism should be advocated as an alternative sustainable source of income in rural areas in lieu of depending on the consumption of natural resources.

Alongside the capacity building and tourism opportunities, locals also need to be involved in the restoration of WHSs. Locals acquire the traditional skills for restoring their own heritage structures without compromising authenticity, which can lead to unsustainable site development and the failure of tourism projects. This highlights the need to develop traditional building skill training programs that aim to preserve, maintain, and reconstruct sites in the distinctive local architectural styles. Management plans should also consider tourism as a source of income to cover the costs of managing WHSs, and to leverage their dependence on financial assistance from government agencies. Overall, current and future inscribed sites in Saudi Arabia should consider the social, environmental, and economic factors when striving to conserve heritage and develop tourism.


This is part of a series emerging from a workshop on ‘Heritage and National Identity Construction in the Gulf’ held at LSE on 5–6 December 2019. Read the introduction here, and see the other pieces below.


In this series:

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About the author

Abdulelah Al-Tokhais

Abdulelah Al-Tokhais is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Tourism, Hospitality and Event Management at the University of Florida. He is also a faculty member at King Saud University in Riyadh. His research interests are in the areas of sustainable tourism, tourism planning and policy, environmental and cultural heritage conservation. He tweets at @abdulelah90

Posted In: Conferences | Saudi

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