Conservation Heritage Saudi Arabia

Heritage hopefuls renew their bids to Unesco

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are pushing through preservation efforts to get their historic sites listed

Fires have caused the destruction of a number of historic houses in Jeddah's old quarter "Balad" in recent years.

Of the many hopefuls vying to earn the coveted status of a Unesco World Heritage Site, two cities in particular have recently been making the news.

During the opening of the ten-day Jeddah Heritage Festival (16-25 January), the first such event in Saudi Arabia, representatives of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities submitted their nomination bid for Jeddah's historic downtown district (known as “Balad”) to become a Unesco World Heritage Site. Jeddah’s previous world heritage bid was rejected in 2011, mainly due to the district’s neglect. To avoid a repeat, the kingdom has dedicated SR50 million ($13 million) to renovate the area, with improvements to its roads and lighting underway. Protective measures are also needed, as fires have caused the destruction of a number of historic houses in the old quarter over recent years. In addition to the preservation efforts, authorities also want to turn the area into a centre for business and tourism; of the 18 buildings recently restored, one is being transformed into a “heritage hotel”.

Over the past few months, the Saudi government has actively promoted tourism in the kingdom, with a boost in funding. Such positive moves are at odds with the way heritage sites have been treated elsewhere in the country, most notably at Mecca, where historic neighbourhoods have been bulldozed to make way for modern developments, aimed at accommodating the increasing number of pilgrims.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government is attempting to buy around 200 historic houses at Harran, an ancient town famed for its domed mud-brick architecture, in order to protect, repair and conserve them. Unwilling to move and unhappy with the prices they are being offered, however, homeowners are refusing to sell. The government is trying to reach an agreement with locals.

Harran has been on Unesco’s shortlist to become a World Heritage Site for 14 years, but any hope of it gaining full status is hampered by developers, who demolish historic buildings to replace them with concrete structures, destroying the town’s architectural character.

The next meeting of Unesco's World Heritage Committee is due to be held in June in Qatar.

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