Saudi site seeks world heritage honour

Al Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family, is the only Arab entry among 39 proposals under Unesco review.

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NEW YORK // For Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, the historical significance of al Diriyah is difficult to exaggerate. The town, 15km north-west of Riyadh, was the original home of the Saudi royal family, and its mud-brick palaces, ramparts and mosques served as the majestic 18th-century capital of the first Saudi dynasty.

Now, one of the world's leading advocates for preservation is poised to recognise that significance. The United Nations cultural and education agency, Unesco, will begin this weekend deciding whether to recognise al Diriyah's Turaif district as a World Heritage site. Experts are meeting in Brazil to consider 39 nominations from 33 countries for inclusion on the list of sites, which currently features 890 natural and man-made monuments determined to offer "outstanding universal value". They range from India's Taj Mahal to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The Turaif district of al Diriyah is the only Arab site being considered at this year's meeting, a process run by the UN's culture and education agency, Unesco. Al Diriyah was established as the capital of the first Saudi state in 1744, and in the ensuing decades exerted enormous religious, architectural, political and cultural influence across the peninsula under the stewardship of the royal house of Saud.

Saudi officials praise Turaif's towers and adobe-and-rock buildings as a "unique model of Najdi architecture" and the "blueprint model for Islamic cities in the Arab peninsula". Highlights include Salwa Palace, Imam Mohammed bin Saud Mosque and Turaif Bath House. Archaeologists are hopeful that Turaif will win over committee members, and describe recent improvements to heritage protection in Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

"A lot of importance is attached to these submissions and they offer a sense of national pride," said Richard Cuttler, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham in England. "All the GCC countries are more aware of their heritage and are keen to stress their individual and collective heritage. "The capacity for museums, heritage protection and an increased interest in cultural management across the whole region has changed dramatically in the past 10 years."

Saudi Arabia's Unesco envoy, Ziad al Drees, is in the Brazilian capital Brasilia mustering support for the submission, which will be debated this weekend. Saudi officials won their first inscription in 2008, when the Nabatean tomb complex at Al Hijr joined Unesco's list. Besides once having been home to the royal family, Turaif became the Islamic spiritual centre of Sheikh Muhammed bin Abdal Wahhab, the father of Wahhabism.

Despite fortifications, walls and wind towers, the so-called "cradle of the kingdom" was left in ruins after a heavy bombardment from an invading army under the Ottoman leadership of Ibrahim Pasha in 1818. Saudi officials have nominated the historical area of Jeddah for consideration at next year's meeting of the World Heritage Committee, which will take place in Bahrain. The archaeology of Saudi Arabia is undergoing a popular resurgence, with an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, showcasing artefacts, many of which have never left the desert Kingdom before.

The show, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, opened this month and features about 320 pieces, of which two-thirds predate the birth of Islam in the early seventh century. Véronique Dauge, who heads the Arab section for Unesco, described the Arabian Gulf region as "largely underrepresented on the list" compared with other parts of the world. She said the region lacked natural sites on the list, particularly after the Arabian oryx sanctuary was de-listed in 2007 following a decision by the Omani government to reduce the size of the protected area by 90 per cent.

The UAE's first nomination - the oases, ruins and desert landscapes of Al Ain - will be assessed at next year's meeting. Other mooted sites in the Emirates include the Bastakiya wind towers of Bur Dubai and the archaeological site of Ed-Dur, in Umm al Qaiwain, which dates from 3000BC. During the 10-day meeting in Brazil, experts will debate the 39 nominated sites - eight of which are natural, 29 are cultural and two are mixed - as well as a further 36 that could be de-listed because they do not receive enough protection.