Saudi Arabia uses ancient tourist site to alter its history

Saudi Arabia uses ancient tourist site to alter its history

DIRIYAH-The Associated Press
Saudi Arabia uses ancient tourist site to alter its history

Just outside Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, a group of elementary school children are on a field trip at Diriyah, where engineers and construction workers are busy restoring a 17th-century fortress, mosques and clay-colored structures that were once the ruling family’s seat of power.

The UNESCO World Heritage site lies in a conservative, arid patch of the country and is unlikely to feature high on any bucket lists for world travelers, but the kingdom is hoping to alter perceptions as it prepares to open the country to tourist visas and international tour groups later this year.

Diriyah lies at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to both control the narrative of its past for future generations of Saudis and to revamp its image to curious world travelers.

It’s an especially important site to the ruling Al Saud family because it’s here where the first Saudi dynasty was founded in the 15th century. The architecture here is associated with the tribes of Najd, the landlocked region in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula that is now home to Riyadh and surrounding cities.

In the 18th century, Diriyah rose to become once again the center of power for the Al Saud, but fell under Ottoman control in the early 19th century. It would take more than a century for the Al Sauds to reclaim Diriyah and found the current Saudi state- named after its ruling family.

Today, much of Diriyah remains closed to the public as authorities work to restore it to its former glory - except this time fitted with the modern comforts of air conditioning and plumbing. The area around the fortress resembles a modern desert oasis with palm trees, parks, restaurants and coffee shops, drawing young Saudis and families in the cooler months looking for green, open spaces away from the congested streets of Riyadh.

“There is an amazing amount of history here,” said Chris Brooks, who frequently comes to Riyadh on business. With a few hours to spare between meetings, he decided to visit Diriyah and take some photos to share with his family back in the U.K.

Still, it’s not a place he’d encourage his family to visit just yet.

“It’s going to take some convincing families to want to come here,” he said.

“To open up, you need it to be more welcoming, more accessible. It takes a lot of time to get a visa to come here and if they address those issues then I think, yeah, more people will come here. There is just so much to see.”

For the kingdom’s 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Diriyah is part of a much larger national project to overhaul the country’s economy and make it more resilient in the face of lower oil prices. Boosting domestic spending and opening the country to foreign tourists are seen as ways to create more jobs for the millions of young Saudis who will be entering the workforce and looking for jobs in the coming years.

The religiously conservative country ran a pilot program between 2006 and 2010 welcoming around 25,000 visitors annually to see Saudi Arabia’s ancient archaeological sites and vast landscapes of mountains, coastline, valleys, volcanoes and deserts.

Though Saudi Arabia may seem an unlikely destination for a holiday, it boasts regions where ancient Christian and Jewish communities once thrived, historic forts, a stunning Red Sea coastline and a diverse culture molded by ancient trade and pilgrimage routes.