Published on Arab Voices

Cultural heritage, identity and economy

This blog was originally published in Alriyadh Newspaper in Arabic.

 Fedor Selivanov l Shutterstock.comA year ago, we at the National Urban Heritage Center (NUHC) of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH), published a study in cooperation with the World Bank to examine investment opportunities in urban heritage available for original owners. The study also explored ways we can support revitalizing old areas, a trend that forms the character of many old cities and gives them their unique flavor.

However,  my colleagues at the World Bank - particularly Dr. Fouad Malakawi, an architect and old friend of mine and I - proposed conducting a more detailed study on opportunities available in the inner-city neighborhoods of Saudi cities. These historic sites have suffered from urban deterioration over the past four decades and require a great deal of effort to bring them back to life in the social and economic sense. This economic trend has been advocated for on several occasions by Prince Sultan bin Salman since the beginning of the new millennium. But at the time, no one truly cared about urban heritage or considered the underlying economic opportunities for the national economy and the great cultural value it can add to Saudi cities in general. However, Prince Sultan continued to speak about the subject until it became a reality today.

In a recent discussion with World Bank colleagues, the concept of the “modern city” was brought up. They see that cultural heritage is an effective economic sector of the city, but it is one of the sectors to which city administrators in Saudi Arabia should focus on. They mentioned Istanbul’s transformation from a “rentier city” overburdening the state to the “sectoral economy” (a city divided into economic sectors) creating a group of private sector-led interdependent economic actors. The state, represented by the city government, can join as a partner in these sectors to gain revenue and help enhance the efficiency of the city and its services at the same time. For instance, public cleaning services became an economic activity and not an expense to the city. The Metro System and other activities work on a corporate basis. This approach views the city as a bundle of interrelated economic opportunities. The city cannot survive without these opportunities that have a deep impact on the efficiency of the city and its identity.

One may argue that such an approach for city management runs the city as a commercial enterprise. In fact, the city is a “socio-economic notion” whose primary goal is to improve the quality of life for its residents. It is also an exhibition of cultural complexities, and its urban scope is the area of social intersections. Hence, a city’s identity, is shaped in the city’s spaces. This makes us pay attention directly to the city heritage, the diversity of its archaeological layers and the urban visual landscape.  People’s way of life and the economic opportunities arising from and in urban spaces represent a legitimate and fundamental requirement. Therefore, thinking of the city as a commercial enterprise is acceptable in light of the cultural/social determinants. Such determinants are “crucial” as it defines whether or not a city embraces its inhabitants, where they have a spatial and emotional connection and where their interests intersect with those of the city and its residents.

Cultural heritage is part of a city’s economic sectors, but it is a diverse sector with a concretely felt material dimension and another non-material dimension. The material and non-material dimensions of heritage form what is known as “entertainment”. In my conversation with colleagues at the World Bank, we referred to the newly created General Authority for Entertainment in Saudi Arabia noting that entertainment is an ‘urban’ issue at heart. It has cultural dimensions that reflects identity in many ways and constitutes one of the economic sectors and shapes the lifestyle in any city.

Life in a city naturally develops its entertainment patterns. For example, we cannot imagine London without the British theatre in Soho and the West End. We cannot imagine Broadway Street, in Manhattan, New York in general without the stage and theatres. The city creates its own entertainment identity which is spatially shaped forming a collective memory and a mind map of the city. Entertainment identity has a deep impact at both the urban and economic level. It is an identity created by social interaction and the culture it generates.

What distinguishes cultural heritage, in all its manifestations, is its ability to generate leisure activities and entertainment organically. All that is required is to stand aside and allow it to do so. It is important here that there is a political will to bring back life to the Saudi city. I am confident that each city will be able to develop an entertainment style that suits it well.

Allow me to reiterate that the Saudi city needs local management more than central authorities. It also needs local management with the authority to act as it sees fit. Saudi cities lack these elements required to transform them into socially and culturally energetic spaces. The shift to a city economy that can take advantage of the opportunities a city presents in various sectors requires efficient local management. The next step may be to create a “Ministry of Local Government” and increasing the number of regions in Saudi following according to a future economic growth map.


Mashary Al Naim

Architect and urban planner

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