Saudi Arabia is restoring 17th century fortresses, mosques and other structures in the ancient site of Diriyah – the Unesco World Heritage site – in an effort reconstruct its past.
According to Associated Press (AP), the kingdom is hoping to alter perceptions as it prepares to open the country to tourist visas and international tour groups later this year.
Renovating Diriyah is part of that effort – to both control the narrative of the country’s past for future generations of Saudis and “to revamp its image to curious world travelers.”
The historical site was and is an important site for the Al Saud family. The first Saudi dynasty was founded in Diriyah in the 15th century. In the 18th century, the place was the center of power for the Al Saud, but fell under Ottoman control in the early 19th century, writes AP. More than a century later, the Al Sauds reclaimed Diriyah and founded the current Saudi state which was named after its ruling family.
Diriyah is now being fitted with the modern comforts such as air conditioning and plumbing.
For some tourists, the place is picturesque and remarkable however they believe the authorities should ease the visa process – which they believe would encourage more visitors.
The kingdom’s 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is using Diriyah as part of a much larger national project “to overhaul the country’s economy and make it more resilient in the face of lower oil prices.” To create more jobs for young Saudis who will be entering the workforce in the coming years, domestic spending has been boosted and the country is welcoming foreign tourists.
According to AP, Saudi tourism authorities are planning to open five museums inside Diriyah and a research center named after Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose ultraconservative teachings of Islam in the 18th century are widely referred to as “Wahhabism.”
Abdul-Wahhab was a key figure in the foundation of the current Saudi state who helped the Al Saud family conquer tribes by using both the sword and the gospel, adds AP. However, his legacy is also associated with some of the “most extreme interpretations of Islam that have been used to justify killings by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.”
In a short presentation shown to visitors of Diriyah, Abdul-Wahhab is described as “a moderating force” — as someone who revived the true teachings of Islam that were first revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Mecca some 1,400 years ago, writes AP.
However, according to David Commins, a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and scholar on Islam in Saudi Arabia, Wahhab’s words basically say: “That if you don’t do this you should be killed. You’re a non-believer. It’s not an obscure part of his writing.”
Commins said for the Saudi rulers to “rewrite” the creed of Wahhab and “say it’s something else” they are going to have to do “some heavy editing.”
For Saudi visitors, the center could serve as a way to “reinterpret” Wahhab’s teachings as the crown prince tries for social reforms that curb the influence of Wahhabism.
For foreigners, it’s a way for the government to put forth its own narrative about one of the country’s most controversial figures, adds AP.
According to Natana DeLong-Bas, a professor at Boston College and the author of “Wahhabi Islam,” for more than a decade the kingdom’s rulers have been trying “to create a sense of ‘wasatiya and wataniya’ or moderation and patriotism” among Saudi citizens. For the author, this has the potential of detaching religion from state activities unlike the past – even if religion would be something that drives morals and ethics.