Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Secretary General of the Higher Authority for Tourism in Saudi Arabia condemned the recent demolitions of the old railway in the western city of Medina and indicated the government was still awaiting a convincing explanation from the city council in order to act accordingly.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq al Awsat, Prince Sultan revealed that local authorities lacked the power to destroy or alter any ruins because of an existing decree by Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz prohibiting the demolishing of any historically significant sites before they are inspected by the Antiquities Agency in order for the Tourism Higher Authority to determine their value.
Following is the text of the interview in full.
Q: How did the Higher Authority for Tourism’s react when the ruins in Medina were demolished?
A: It’s important to understand that the destruction really shocked us. The Authority sent a letter to the head of the Medina city council asking for details on the incident and has yet to receive a response, which will determine its next move.
Q: Existing decrees forbid demolishing old buildings and structures. How do you see the latest events in light of these judgments?
A: His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince, ruled that no historical site should be demolished without prior examination by the Antiquities Agency, which is affiliated with the Higher Authority for Tourism who is the qualified agency to evaluate the ruin and decide on its cultural importance. The Minister of Interior lent his support to this decree and asked regional governors to enforce it. In addition, Prince Miteb bin Abdulaziz, the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, also ordered municipal body to refrain from altering any historical sites.
Q: The railway in Media is one of the most important sites restored by the Authority. Can you tell us more about how the project started?
A: I personally examined the railway a few months ago and flew over the old lines at low altitude. For the most part, the railway is located far from inhabited areas with some stations full of historical and cultural significance. Four or five years ago, the state restored the railway at a cost of over 6 million US dollars; the original train was even brought back to life! The Antiquities Agency is currently studying the possibility of turning the site into a museum open to the public in addition to repairing the entire network and a number of forts along the way.
Q: How do you intend to deal with the latest demolitions in Medina?
A: Saudi Arabia has a very rich cultural heritage. Destroying historical sites was always going to be problematic, especially as a ruling forbidding such practices was issued four years ago. Municipalities do not have the right to tamper with ruins.
Despite this, I remain optimistic as the government continues to show interest in restoring historical sites around the country such as the area around the Royal Palace in Riyadh, and the planned renovation of the old quarters in Jeddah.
Our nation’s heritage will not be at the mercy of personal discretion especially in light of increasingly international concern withy some countries even imposing sanctions for the smallest changes to historical buildings and sites.
Q: How do you see the future of the antiquities sector in Saudi Arabia?
A: I believe it will continue to flourish, as the Antiquities Agency will soon come under the control of the Higher Authority for Tourism. A new structure governing museums and antiquities that will protect all historical buildings has been devised and is awaiting approval by the relevant authorities.
Q: How was the railway destroyed in Medina?
A: The Authority understands that the buildings were pulled down but the stones remained intact. The site will be entirely rebuilt.
Q: How would you describe the level of cooperation between the municipalities and other local government branches?
A: Cooperation with city councils across Saudi Arabia is excellent. The Higher Authority for Tourism has sent a delegation of four council heads to tour European towns and villages and learn about maintaining historical sites and transforming them into tourist attractions.
Q: What is the Authority planning for the future to safeguard the Kingdom’s historical sites?
A: We are currently working in conjunction with the Ministries of Municipal Affairs and Labor to restore old villages. This will create thousand of job opportunities for the poor and engage the inhabitants in small manufacturing businesses. This is in line with the government’s ongoing efforts to combat poverty and restrict migration from rural areas.
Q: In your opinion, what is the future of tourism in Saudi Arabia?
A: Tourism is an important industry, which can create thousands of jobs especially as it highlights the best of every region in agriculture, heritage, and crafts.
I would like to stress once more that destroying historical sites is totally unacceptable. Fortunately, the Saudi public is increasingly aware of the importance of these ruins and has objected to their destruction. It is important to remember the important role played by the National Guard in this respect and will intend to build on their celebration of our national heritage at the al Janadriyah festival.
Q: To go back to the demolition of the historical sites in Medina, why did the destruction take place and who ordered it?
A: I would like to draw attention to the exceptional role played by Prince Miteb bin Abdulaziz, the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affair as one of the officials most concerned about preserving our national heritage and historical ruins.
The decision to destroy or alter sites is not one for a municipal employee to take. Recently, the Authority has prepared a list of all the national historical sites and royal orders have been issued to obtain the Kingdom’s antiquities currently abroad.
We hope to highlight the cultural aspect of Saudi Arabia, a country with significant influence on the international cultural arena. The Kingdom is also the crossroads of several civilizations and the birthplace of a noble human heritage.