News You Really Need To See: “Saudis Turn Birthplace of Ideology Into Tourist Spot”

“Saudis Turn Birthplace of Ideology Into Tourist Spot”

The New York Times, June 1, 2015, p.A4

More than 250 years ago, in this sunbaked oasis of mud-brick houses and ramparts, the ancestors of the Saudi royal family and an outcast fundamentalist preacher formed an alliance that has shaped this land ever since.  In return for political supremacy, the House of Saud endorsed the doctrine of Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab and followed it to wage jihad against anyone who rejected their creed, gaining control of much of the Arabian Peninsula.  That alliance laid the foundations of the modern Saudi state, which has in more recent times used its oil wealth to make the cleric’s rigid doctrine — widely known as Wahhabism — a major force in the Muslim world.  And now, this site, the birthplace of it all, is becoming a tourist attraction.  Inside a massive complex on the outskirts of Riyadh filled with parks, restaurants and coffee shops, hundreds of laborers are rehabilitating mud palaces once home to the Saud family and building museums celebrating its history.  Nearby stands a sleek structure that will house a foundation dedicated to the sheikh and his mission.  The kingdom is doubling down on its origins.  The development of Diriyah is a pet project of the new king, Salman, who is seeking to create a showcase attraction to reinforce the royal family’s national narrative.  The entire complex is expected to open in two years at a total cost of about a half-billion dollars, according to a contractor who declined to be named because the sum has not been made public.  Saudi officials hope the project will link citizens to their past and rehabilitate the reputation of Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab, which they say has been wrongly sullied. … Some critics say the interest in Diriyah by the kingdom’s rulers is more about politics than about historical preservation, noting that the government has neglected or destroyed many other heritage sites. … Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics who has written books on Saudi history, said the royal family tries to bolster its legitimacy by creating ‘historical amnesia’ about aspects of the kingdom’s past that do not relate to its rule.  ‘Diriyah is extremely important in this because for the Saud, it all started there and they want to say that the Arabian Peninsula had no history before them,’ Dr. Rasheed said. … The complex will feature parks, restaurants, underground parking and a series of museums about traditional Saudi life, warfare and the Arabian horse.”

Quickie analysis:  A possible contender for “World’s Least-Fun Theme Park.” But an interesting article on the historical symbiosis of Wahhabism and the House of Saud.  

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