Will Saudi Arabia Lift The Veil For Tourism?

The old mud-brick town of Al Ula i i

The old mud-brick town of Al Ula is a gateway for the ancient Dedanian and Nabatean sites of northwest Saudi Arabia. Saudis lived in the old town until very recently. Now the Saudi government is restoring the site, in anticipation of more tourists. Kelly McEvers for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kelly McEvers for NPR
The old mud-brick town of Al Ula

The old mud-brick town of Al Ula is a gateway for the ancient Dedanian and Nabatean sites of northwest Saudi Arabia. Saudis lived in the old town until very recently. Now the Saudi government is restoring the site, in anticipation of more tourists.

Kelly McEvers for NPR

The tourist attractions of neighboring Jordan and Egypt may be better known than those of Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi government is trying to change that: It recently announced that it's spending billions of dollars to lure 1.5 million tourists to the country by 2020.

But even as the authorities look for ways to encourage tourism, locals aren't sure Saudi Arabia is ready to open up.

The threat of violence is one deterrent. And the government itself is reluctant to give tourists access to some of the country's nature and historic sites. The 2020 goal is a challenge — Saudi Arabia now draws just tens of thousands of tourists a year.

Hidden Treasures

Remote northwest Saudi Arabia was once a crossroads of civilizations, dating as far back as 1,000 B.C. It is situated along the ancient frankincense trading route from Yemen to the Mediterranean.

Now, archaeologists in Al Ula are digging up houses of worship built by the so-called Dedanian people, or Dedanites, who are mentioned in the Bible.

Archaeology professor Mohammad al-Dairi, who is originally from Jordan, is working on the excavation.

"The statues are of the local stone, sandstone. But well done, smooth. They are so nice," he says.

Trouble is, visitors aren't allowed to see them. Saudi authorities have ordered al-Dairi and his colleagues to hide the pieces away in their lab. Egyptian archaeologist Mohammad Mahsen says that's not how it works in his country.

If we discover it, he says, we show it.

But in Saudi Arabia, the opposite is true — and it's a problem with many of Saudi Arabia's historic places. Because they depict religious beliefs that existed before the revelation of Islam, they are considered unholy. And if a site is unholy, the thinking goes, why should anyone be allowed to visit it?

A facade on a Nabatean tomb. i i

Nabatean tombs were built from 65 B.C. to A.D. 106. The 10 diagonal steps on top of the facade represent the 10 Nabatean gods. Kelly McEvers for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kelly McEvers for NPR
A facade on a Nabatean tomb.

Nabatean tombs were built from 65 B.C. to A.D. 106. The 10 diagonal steps on top of the facade represent the 10 Nabatean gods.

Kelly McEvers for NPR

But some still do.

Beyond the Dedanian site, tour guide Ahmed Saleh Nour takes a group of tourists to what remains of a grand Nabatean city, built between 65 B.C. and A.D. 106. The group consists of Westerners who live in Saudi Arabia — diplomats, nurses and defense contractors.

Nabatean tombs are carved into the sides of huge rock formations. They have elaborate archways and stair motifs representing each one of their 10 gods.

Inside one tomb, an archaeologist recently found three mummies that she thinks are Nabatean. But she covered the bodies with sand for fear that they would be looted — or, worse, that Saudi officials would forbid researchers from studying them.

"If there is a visitor, they think there is nothing and go to another one," Nour says.

Violence Still A Concern

Outside the tombs, Nour points out how some facades have already been defaced — with bullet holes.

Researchers in Saudi Arabia say Muslim fundamentalists fired those gunshots in the 1980s, when the religious establishment was gaining power in Saudi Arabia.

That kind of violence is sometimes directed at people as well. Two years ago, a group of eight French tourists visited the Nabatean city with Nour and then headed south to camp in the desert.

While they were photographing camels, Nour says, a Land Cruiser approached. The two groups exchanged a few words, and after establishing that the tourists were French, the occupants of the car shot and killed three of the tourists and seriously wounded a fourth.

Saudi authorities later arrested men they said were affiliated with al-Qaida. Now, tourists must travel in groups no smaller than four, and the groups must be accompanied by a police escort.

Because of the restrictions, there have been few visitors from outside the country lately. As a result, those who live in Saudi Arabia have its sites largely to themselves for now.

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