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Conserving the Kingdom

on Feb 3, 2009

Modern metal doors replace the old timber doors and a metal shade structure replaces canvas awnings in the old souq of Yanbu Al Bahr
Modern metal doors replace the old timber doors and a metal shade structure replaces canvas awnings in the old souq of Yanbu Al Bahr
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By Dr Aylin Orbasli

Tourism-led conservation for the abandoned historic quarters of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Coast.

The Arabian Peninsula is home to numerous historic settlements; it boasts everything from ancient centres of international trade to smaller ports, towns and villages. Some have been lost to urban development, some to desert sands.

Some strive to survive in the midst of rapidly growing and changing cities. Oil-fuelled wealth has not only brought rapid urbanisation to the Arabian Peninsula, it has also resulted in a near wholesale abandonment of its urban heritage. Meanwhile the craft traditions that were instrumental in building and maintaining structures have almost disappeared from the region due to a lack of demand and the predominance of an immigrant labour force.

Through the efforts of Departments of Antiquities, monuments and sites are protected, but there is scant legislation protecting historic towns, town centres or villages, many of which have been abandoned by residents aspiring to life in modern new homes.

In the case of developments that have taken place in the past 30 years, many of the old buildings are no longer able to service the demands of the modern consumer society. As the abandoned historic quarters have often been taken over by immigrant workers, their association for many is with being ‘backward’ or ‘old fashioned’. 

In the Gulf, there are limited references to a sense of identity or a link to the past that has come to represent cultural heritage to other societies. Meanwhile cultural tourism is emerging as a new and, in places, major player that is spurred by the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the region. This is leading to a growing number of urban conservation projects that are emerging with tourism as their primary driver.

In 2006, Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Commission for Tourism and the Royal Commission for Yanbu and Jubail commissioned an international team to make recommendations for the preservation, conservation, tourism development and management of four historic towns on the country’s Red Coast.  Located north of Jeddah, the coastal towns involved in the heritage analysis included Yanbu Al Bahr, Umluj, Al Wajh and Duba. 

The architecture—recognised as ‘Red Sea’ style—incorporates honey-coloured coral walls laid with horizontal timber stretchers and are adorned with ornate timber windows, balconies, overhangs and rawashin. Although similar in many ways, the architectural details and urban morphology gives each town a unique character.

The team faced a task unlike many urban conservation/regeneration projects in which the social fabric is usually as important as the built fabric.

Its aim, therefore, was to seek new approaches to urban conservation that would combine sound conservation practice, appropriate new uses, sensitive interventions and urban realm improvements to assist in bringing life back into the historic quarters. The projects have yet to commence and thus, the discussion here is based on many of the ethical and conservation quandaries encountered during the planning stage.

The first step was to establish a strategic overview within the regional tourism development framework. It was essential to establish the significance of the historic quarters in each town to inform how these values could be enhanced, while keeping in mind that, conserving isolated areas for tourism is meaningless if the locations are not valued by the local community.

A key consideration was to find ways to physical links to ensure that the historic quarters of the old cities would be integrated into the surrounding modern cities. The next stages of the project can be described as a continuum of conservation through adaptive reuse, design guidelines for new buildings and urban realm improvements. Each has its own physical, practical, social and cultural implications.

Tourism planning for abandoned historic quarters

Internationally, tourism has come to play a significant role in urban conservation and in many cases it is seen as an incentive for conservation.

However, for many visitors, one of the key attractions of visiting a historic town is the activity and life happening inside its borders. How can this be realised in virtual ‘ghost towns’ where tourism-related uses would not be sufficient to rekindle a sense of social identity? Can life be brought back into an urban environment without creating a fake attraction akin to a theme park?
At the same time, maintaining the privacy of the family—and especially that of women—is a fundamental cornerstone of the traditional Islamic city as it is inevitably built based on a clear division of public and private spaces.

Admittedly, this is not an urban form that immediately lends itself to tourism. Yet the alteration of these characteristics to accommodate tourism through the assignment of new and different functions to residential units—and even opening up ground floors to increase retail opportunities—can result in the loss of the unique and fundamental character of the place.

There is concern across the region that the past is being reinvented as a heritage attraction, and that ‘heritage’ is being manufactured for tourist consumption. In fact, there is a growing number of hotels and resorts that are distinctly seeking a ‘historic’ and often vernacular style as a selling point.

Such practices not only devalue heritage, they detract from the value of what little remains of the authentic. By fuelling the belief that heritage can be reconstructed using modern materials wherever and whenever it is convenient, the fledgling urban conservation movement in the region is only further destabilised.