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Shared Culture, Shared Heritage, Shared Responsibility: Why the idea of sharing is more important now than ever.

16 Apr 2020

Monuments and heritage sites the world over are symbols of the resilience of humanity. 
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“As humans we have a tendency to forget life’s challenges once they’re over, but monuments and heritage sites, they stand as physical reminders of past events,” says Dr. Haifa AlHababi, who is responsible for projects relating to architectural heritage at the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA). 
 
“During the coronavirus pandemic we are living through now, where we can’t even do simple things we took for granted a few months ago it’s very important to have tangible reminders to give people hope and to remind them of lessons learned.
“Take the Taj Mahal, for example, it’s a story of commitment and the great love of a husband and wife that extends beyond architectural beauty and significance. It’s the story that unites people from around the globe, the universal message of love.”
 
If the Taj Mahal is a symbol of love, then At-Turaif, one of the world’s largest mud-brick cities and the UNESCO World Heritage Site within Diriyah, is a symbol of unity.

It was here where Imam Mohammed bin Saud unified the Arabian Peninsula and declared the first Saudi state in 1744.

“Diriyah was where the first Saudi state was founded and then it was the location that brought together the many different tribes and cultures from across the Arabian Peninsula and united them,” says Dr. Haifa. “And as a site that fell twice to the Ottomans before rising again, it isn’t without its own tumultuous history.”
 
As a site of great significance for the Saudi Arabian nation, it may come as a surprise that many Saudis don’t know about Diriyah or indeed At-Turaif.
 
“It’s because our economy has been based on oil in recent times,” says Dr.Haifa.
We haven’t known gradual change here, rather sudden and extreme change, even if you look at the way we went back to where we use to be  now in terms of Vision 2030 it’s quite dramatic, and we are able to do that because Saudi Arabia has political will and economic capacity.”  
 
Dr. Haifa says that in the 1970s when oil revenues in the Kingdom grew considerably and the population suddenly had more wealth, they preferred not to remember past hardships so there became a disconnect between the people and their history and culture.
 
“There were no more Saudi farmers or women working the land, everyone and everything changed, everyone wanted to go to university and work in an office,” says Dr. Haifa.

 “Their heritage reminded them of struggles that they didn’t want to be reminded of. This is why so many people do not know about Diriyah.”
 
Things are changing however. Dr. Haifa says that because younger generations of Saudis feel like they have lost their cultural identity, they are now seeking to find it and reconnect with their past. Indeed, the DGDA, with the development of Diriyah, is uncovering the stories of generations past and preserving Saudi Arabian heritage in order to shape the future and reinforce a sense of love for their history in all Saudis.
 
“The government was previously focussed on building specialisms like medicine, IT and engineering and national security,” says Dr. Haifa. “Art and culture were considered a luxury. But now those areas are solid and established, we are seeing a strong return to culture in Saudi Arabia, because younger generations are reviving their heritage.

“It’s prevalent in Saudi Arabia but I’d say it’s a global phenomenon, because the loss of cultural identity in recent decades is a global phenomenon.”
 
It’s a phenomenon that Dr. Haifa cites herself as being part of. She had originally planned on studying interior design but a chance visit to an architectural exhibition one day changed her path.

“I went to a show of colourful photos and interior and exterior architecture, and I was asking where they were from. I thoughts they were from Mexico, but in actual fact there were from Saudi Arabia,” Dr. Haifa recalls.

“The curator asked my name, and said ‘you are from this tribe, and you don’t know your own country?’. It was a slap in the face, I was ashamed, and from that time I vowed to learn about my heritage and culture and make it known to the world.”
 
The DGDA are collaborating with the Ministry of Education, providing free school tours to At-Turaif for all schools in Riyadh.

“We participate in the curriculums now,” says Dr. Haifa. “At-Turaif is on the cover of the history books and the DGDA is named in the book as the authority taking care of At-Turaif.”
 
But the current situation has seen heritage sites the world over close to the public, with a focus to shifting learning and experience online while the opportunity to visit isn’t an option.

“There is a global community of heritage sites and we all work together,” says Dr. Haifa.

“We have a Whatsapp group with site managers from everywhere from Scotland and Germany to Haiti, Norway and Africa. The sense of community and sharing our plans openly has been instrumental to the way we approach this crisis. We never stop, we are still all managing and securing our sites, with the health of our employees at the forefront of everything we do.”
 
Dr. Haifa maintains that sharing the stories of our culture and heritage through whatever channels we can is more important now than ever. “The story of At-Turaif as the home of the first Saudi state and the multiple challenges it has faced since 1744 are so relevant when people are locked-down and frustrated and desperate for a great stories. It’s an example of resilience, a message to whole world not to worry. Like the Saudi state that fell twice to the Ottomans and came back stronger than ever, we too can overcome this current crisis.”