Unesco World Heritage Committee begins in Saudi Arabia with an eye on Morocco

Representatives stress importance of international solidarity in face of climate change and armed conflict

The Unesco World Heritage Committee is being held in Saudi Arabia for the first time. AFP
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The 45th extended session of the Unesco World Heritage Committee has kicked off a “historic first” event in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking on the opening day in Riyadh on Monday, several representatives congratulated Saudi Arabia on the coming event, while also expressing sympathy for the people of Morocco following the earthquake that has killed more than 2,100 people and damaged several heritage sites, such as Kharboush Mosque.

Summarising the tone of the event, the representative for India first thanked Saudi Arabia for its "excellent organisation" of the event, before adding: "We join other state parties in expressing our solidarity with the Kingdom of Morocco for the loss of life and property."

The representative for Nigeria, meanwhile, also added: "I join others in extending our sympathy to the people and the government of the Kingdom of Morocco on the devastating earthquake and the loss of life."

She also said that efforts to respond to the impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties must be "sustained and intensified".

"Recent events around us prove the more challenging times are ahead."

Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay also reflected these themes as she remarked on the “existential threat” posed to heritage by climate disruption.

She said: “We know that we are emerging from the hottest month of July on record; we know that floods are devastating sites and populations, that coastal erosion is threatening the very existence of island nations."

Azoulay drew particular attention to the plight of marine and coastal World Heritage sites – seven in ten of which are directly endangered.

“A joint study by Unesco and the IUCN, published at the end of last month, showed the crucial role of our sites for biodiversity: Although they cover just 1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, they are home to 20 per cent of mapped species. They protect life in its diversity and human life too,” she added.

Despite "decisive action" rolled out by Unesco in locations such as Ukraine and Yemen, she said there were several other crisis theatres, including Sudan and Haiti, where "armed gangs are ransacking populations and heritage".

However, she added: “In a few days’ time, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, we will show, through an exhibition, just how powerful culture can be in supporting societies devastated by conflict, building also on the exceptional work we have done in Mosul, Iraq, in recent years thanks to our collective mobilisation.”

Originally scheduled for Russia in 2022, the event was postponed following the invasion of Ukraine – meaning the committee will consider two years' of nominations this year, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s Uruq Bani Ma’arid to the Cat Ba Archipelago in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. Also featured on the list are Palestine’s Ancient Jericho, Tunisia's island of Djerba and several others in Turkey and Iran.

The committee was inaugurated on Sunday by Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, Saudi Minister of Culture. Speaking at a gala dinner at Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh ahead of the event, Azoulay took a moment to reflect on the Morocco earthquake .

Expressing condolences, she said: “As you know, solidarity is at the heart of Unesco’s Convention, and international assistance is an integral part of our mission. This was also clear the last time the World Heritage Committee met for an extraordinary session early this year, to urgently inscribe three sites in danger: Odesa in Ukraine, Tripoli in Lebanon and Marib in Yemen."

Looking ahead to this year’s committee, Azoulay called the event a “historic first”.

“It is very significant that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hosting such a universal session, with so many participants, diverse voices and intense debates. It is further proof that Saudi Arabia – situated at one of the crossroads of the world with its rich, multi-millennial history – has chosen to invest in culture, heritage and creativity," she said.

“The rock art of Hima, engraved over seven thousand years in the South Arabian, Greek and Arabic alphabets, inspires humility, of course, but also drives this movement.”

The Unesco World Heritage Committee is composed of representatives from 21 states, elected by the General Assembly, who assess proposals from states that wish to place their sites on the World Heritage List.

The committee will begin on Tuesday by assessing the state of conservation of sites already on the World Heritage List.

On Saturday, it will start evaluating nominations for the World Heritage List, a process that will run until September 20. On September 24, the committee will announce the venue and dates for the next session, before officially closing the following day.

Updated: September 11, 2023, 1:46 PM