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Treasures revealed: Saudi’s true nature will blow your mind away

This month on ‘Inside the Middle East’, CNN uncovers the rich and diverse archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia and how the desert Kingdom is opening itself up to international archaeologists and tourists.

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CNN explores how Saudi Arabia is putting the preservation of culture and heritage at the top of the agenda as it is ready to invest billions of dollars to promote cultural tourism. By 2030, Saudi Arabia hopes to more than double the number of world heritage sites in the country and to do that it is embarking on one of the region’s most expansive archaeological surveys.

The programme visits Mada’in Saleh – the Nabateans southernmost city and one of the Middle East’s major archaeological treasures – which became Saudi Arabia’s first world heritage site in 2008. More than 100 tombs, some over 20 meters tall, dot the landscape. Over 15 years ago, the French archaeologist, Laila Nehme became the first foreign archaeologist allowed to work in Mada’in Saleh but over the years she has uncovered that this area has a lot more secrets to be shared.

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Laila Nehme, Co-Director, Mada’in Saleh Archaeological Project explains the possibilities for further excavation and discovery: “There are huge amounts of sites which are yet to be recorded. And so, there’s a lot of work for future archaeologists.”

‘Inside the Middle East’ learns that the work at Mada’in Saleh is part of a much wider initiative, as the Kingdom embarks on one of the largest archaeological surveys ever conducted in the region.

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Robert Bewley, Project Director, Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa, tells the programme: “In terms of Saudi Arabia, they have some of the best-preserved archaeology anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s fantastic. What they’re trying to do in certain areas is find the best ways of not only preserving the archaeological sites but also then presenting them to the public… They’re now, obviously, thinking the future has to be … as with the whole of the Middle East, opening it up so people could come and visit.”

Abeer AlAkel, Head of Strategy, Royal Commission of Al-`Ula, shares similar insights into the finding, recording and showcasing the historic sites: “Saudi Arabia has multiple and different landscapes with amazing cultures and heritage sites. There is a particular interest in Al-`Ula and it is a key element we’re focusing more on the archaeological understanding, the heritage, the culture of the area. Trying to document, trying to identify the sites in here.  It’s an undiscovered area, and we need to make sure that we do preserve and protect the land in here.”

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The Kingdom hopes to attract 30 million visitors a year by 2030 and is hoping to bring a new chapter of history to light by conquering the desert and uncovering sites for the very first time.

American archaeologist Dr. Rebecca Foote has been unearthing ancient treasures in the region for over two decades and is leading the archaeological survey. She discusses the opportunities that are opening up: “Saudi hasn’t been open to that very many Western archaeologists in recent decades. It’s very much a new frontier for archaeologists and Al-`Ula itself is a gem.”

The enthusiasm for the archaeological treasures that are still to be uncovered is described by Jamie Quartermaine, Project Manager, Royal Commission of Al-`Ula Archaeological Survey, “We are some of the first archaeologists ever to see these sites. That both gives us a lot of respect for what is going on, but at the same time, it’s just genuine excitement about the wonderful heritage that we’ve got in this part of the world.”

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Quartermaine continues and speaks about the extent of the survey and the task ahead: “In one sense it’s extremely exciting and another sense terrifying. The sheer scale of how much ground we’ve got to cover, and at the same time how much we’ve actually got to understand and appreciate all that incredible rich archaeology. We don’t know precisely the number of sites, but it could be upwards above 6,000, perhaps even greater than that, 8,000 monuments.”

CNN learns that hi-tech solutions and the latest cutting-edge technology are being used to analyze the vast site including, satellite imagery and 3D scanning.

Jamie Quartermaine discusses how drones and 3D modeling are helping them at Al-‘Ula, and how they’re employing new techniques for the first time in the region: “We’ll be able to pick out every single pebble, every single element of a structure, in three dimensions. This is something that’s never been achievable. Some of the techniques that we’re using are basically never been applied in this part of the world. Even in Western Europe, the techniques have only been applied for the last two or three years, so the techniques are very new. They’re innovative and they’re changing the way archaeology is being undertaken.”

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As the Kingdom enters a new era, the conservation and safeguarding of its ancient past are essential, as Abeer AlAkel, Head of Strategy, Royal Commission of Al-`Ula, explains: “Our vision to Al-`Ula is to basically preserve and protect the heritage site, ensure that it’s ready to welcome the visitors and tourists. By then hopefully, it will be the number one destination in the world.”

Robert Bewley, Project Director, Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa tells CNN about the prospects for Saudi Arabia with the tourism and preservation of the ancient sites: “I think that they’ve got the opportunity to get it absolutely right. It won’t be easy.  I think as a tourist destination, it will become one of the top places in the world if it really is opened up. Equally, they’re gonna have to balance the experience so that it just isn’t completely mobbed, but I’m sure they’ll get it right. Not only that, I think Saudi Arabia can teach a lot of other people about how best to do things.”