Panoramic vision: how the UAE is safeguarding its heritage

Ahead of Unesco World Heritage Day on April 18, we look at the importance and benefits of preserving sites of historic and cultural significance in the UAE.

Dubai Creek has applied for World Heritage status. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Despite being a relatively young country, a rich seam of cultural heritage lies just below the UAE's 21st-century fascia. In 2011, the country made the Unesco World Heritage hall of fame, with the garden city of Al Ain recognised for four sites of "outstanding universal value", including six oases, the Hafit Bronze Age tomb, the Hili archaeological settlements and the prehistoric site of Bidaa Bint Saud.

Inscription onto the list as a natural or cultural site “that demonstrates influence or significance in a global context” is a lengthy process, with the Al Ain bid taking five years.

Sites are required to meet an exhaustive list of criteria to be placed on the tentative list of the State Party (a country that adheres to the World Heritage Convention), and only then begins the nomination process. And it doesn’t end there, with a requirement to implement an ongoing programme of active restoration and preservation once inscribed.

Dubai is also vying for inscription and, this June, the city will find out whether Dubai Creek has made the grade, following its bid for recognition for a 1.75-square-kilometre site extending from Al Shindagha down to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood and including residential properties, Al Fahidi Fort, Al Ahmadiya School and the old souqs of Deira and Bur Dubai.

Elsewhere in the UAE, a number of other sites are on the official tentative list including Sharjah, Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah, Sir Bu Nair Island and the Umm an-Nar Island settlement.

Preserving the intangible

Professor Robert Parthesius, director of Dhakira Center for Heritage Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi, has worked on World Heritage projects for over three decades, including in the town of Galle in Sri Lanka, and on the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania.

“Heritage sites are extremely important to the identity of the UAE and its people, and present an interesting story for tourists and the economy, when successfully applied in the context of nation building; and this is certainly recognised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority,” Parthesius says.

However, he believes that there is more to heritage authenticity than buildings and objects, and is an advocate of the preservation of social processes and cultural memories.

Parthesius uses Japan as an example, where temples are rebuilt every 10 years in line with the Buddhist principle of rebirth. “In the West, we focus on preserving ancient buildings, yet other cultures believe in preserving the knowledge about how these buildings are constructed. In a way, a building becomes a dead object if you simply choose to preserve it,” he explains.

“In this sense, some of the ­strongest aspects of the UAE’s heritage aren’t ­completely compatible with the ­Unesco framework, which is a fantastically successful model, but takes a Eurocentric approach to heritage ­preservation. We need to think in terms of natural and cultural landscapes, and how things and people fit into that ­landscape.”

Through the remit of the Dhakira Center for Heritage Studies, Parthesius is hopeful that there will be opportunities to work on World Heritage nominations in the UAE.

“The UAE has been shaped by its natural environment, and people often think of the country as a split between its desert-dwelling and coastal peoples. I am working on setting up a research programme that will look at the connection between the Liwa desert community, where people worked in the summer months, and Dalma Island, where they came for fishing and pearling in the cooler season,” he says.

“If you look at this area today, there are so many things that can no longer be shown physically, but, from the intangible heritage perspective, are readily available through oral history and storytelling,” he adds.

Museum versus living heritage

Parthesius draws on his time spent working on Zanzibar’s World Heritage listing bid as invaluable experience when considering potential sites in Abu Dhabi. “If you look at residents of Stone Town [in Zanzibar], they are not the same as in 1964. After the revolution, the Omanis left and a new community was established, and you also saw palace buildings divided into multi-family homes, thus breaking the cultural connection,” he says.

“These types of events made it difficult for Unesco to designate a living heritage site, so instead they focused on a requirement for the restoration and conservation of local houses, and this resulted in Zanzibar becoming a good example of how a destination is preserved as a museum rather than as a living entity.”

Dalma Island, which has archaeological remains dating back 7,000 years and is still home to an active local community, presents a two-pronged opportunity for Parthesius. “What we want to do with the Liwa-Dalma project is develop a fragmented heritage landscape based on people’s stories and other traditional elements, such as buildings, photographs and objects, and weave these layers together to create a dynamic heritage site and experience.”

Parthesius is also keen to integrate technology into the process, and is talking with other university departments about the possibility of developing software and equipment to scan at-risk objects that can then be combined with other resources to create a virtual multisensory heritage world.

“Looking outside of the UAE and the issue of safeguarding heritage under threat, where entire sites have been bombed out of existence, there is still an opportunity to preserve and ­protect memories, and this can be even more powerful than actual objects,” he ­explains.

“For example, I have students from Aleppo, Syria, who have very strong memories and are able to reimagine every detail of their city. So, this demonstrates the importance of investing in the intangible to keep memories alive and safeguard heritage in ­another way.”

Region under threat

Last December, Abu Dhabi hosted a high-profile international conference on Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage. The two-day event concluded with the announcement of the Abu Dhabi Declaration, in support of Unesco’s global coalition to protect endangered cultural heritage, and the approval of a US$100 million (Dh367m) international fund.

The Bahrain-headquartered Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARC-WH) is another Unesco-approved entity established to support regional efforts to conserve, preserve and promote cultural and natural heritage.

Regional conflict in countries, including Iraq, Yemen and Syria, poses an obvious threat to cultural preservation, and the ARC-WH team reports a noticeable increase in applications for site nominations in the last five years, particularly from properties located in high-risk areas.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom, and successful ARC-WH projects, benefiting both people and local economies, include the restoration of southern Iraq’s marshlands (known as Ahwar), which achieved World Heritage status in 2016.

“The site was considerably damaged following drainage projects in the 1980s and 1990s, where the construction of upstream dams reduced the marshlands to 30 per cent of their original size, and this was restored to 70 per cent, attracting many previously displaced Marsh Arabs to their homeland. The site was also a source of literary and religious inspiration for the ancient Sumerian civilisation,” says Shadia Touqan, director of ARC-WH.

Sites located in densely populated urban areas also face challenges, but Touqan uses the example of Historic Jeddah (inscribed in 2014), home to a collection of 19th-century houses and architectural details, of how the past and present can co-exist.

“Since Jeddah is a bustling, multi­cultural metropolis, restrictions and advanced conservation strategies have been implemented to preserve the cultural integrity of this site, including an inventory of its historic constructs and buildings,” she explains.

“In order to fuel continual upkeep and ensure the success of monitoring mechanisms, a cultural initiative has been undertaken to raise awareness in Jeddah, as well as at an international level. The participation of locals creates a sense of renewed admiration for the unique nature of this vibrant Red Sea city, and has proved to be a key ingredient in the preservation of Historic Jeddah’s integrity and upkeep.”

Local and regional action in safeguarding natural and cultural heritage is set to remain an agenda-leading topic. Speaking at the closing session of the Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage conference, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, reinforced the UAE’s own commitment.

“We in the UAE realise that our national heritage, which has been taking shape over millennia, is an integral part of our identity and who we are. We also realise that preserving our own heritage helps enrich human culture and heritage as a whole,” he said.