Heritage Authority to control key sites

Law will give Adach right to supervise maintenance and use of historical property if owners will not sell.

Abu Dhabi's largest conservation site, the Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain, has served as both a royal residence and military fortification.
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ABU DHABI // Officials are planning to take ownership or control of significant historical, archaeological and heritage sites, with management orders if necessary, to preserve the emirate's heritage. The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) says the owners of all such sites will be forced into compliance with the conservation policies of the authority once a programme, now being developed, becomes law by the end of the year. In many cases, the authority will gain ownership of the sites and, even when private ownership is allowed to continue, will supervise their management strictly. "Historic buildings contribute to the environment you live in, they preserve national memory," said Dr Sami el-Masri, director of strategic planning at Adach. "We need clear legislation, we need to establish clear criteria for what is heritage and we're in discussions about this now." Under the current system, Adach has an agreement with the municipality defining which buildings or sites it deems to have historic value should be preserved. However, obtaining control over sites can be problematic as Adach has no legal right to take them over. When a site deemed by the authority as historic is privately owned, the authority can offer money or an alternative plot of land to the owner in exchange. If the owner does not want to sell, the authority will pay him to allow it to take control of the site's maintenance and use through close supervision. "We need this to be enforced by the Government," Dr Masri said. "The criteria for heritage and the methodology to preserve those buildings need to be entrenched in legislation. Sometimes people are sceptical about what it means to be a heritage building and this is justified. But that's why we need a law protecting cultural property." Under the new programme, planning restrictions will be imposed in Abu Dhabi emirate. The programme will establish a process for assessing the historic or heritage value of a building. It will give the criteria for determining the value and will provide legal protection for sites designated as heritage or historic. Sites of interest are likely to include significant buildings, such as forts and watchtowers, but may also include buildings or locations where historic events took place, such as the birthplace of a member of the ruling family, or an area where an activity first took place, such as commercial date farming. According to Adach, heritage buildings are more important than those that are historic because they have some form of cultural significance in addition to having been built centuries ago. The most important heritage site in Abu Dhabi city is Qasr Al Hosn Fort in the precinct of the Cultural Foundation. Ownership of the fort has changed hands several times, but it was most actively used in the 17th century by the Bani Yas tribe, which fished and pearled out of Abu Dhabi. Whereas archaeological sites tend to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, historic sites can be less than 400 years old. Heritage sites can also be less than 400 years old, since their cultural relevance rather than their age gives them their special designation. jhume@thenational.ae