Saudi Arabia has launched a major initiative to bring its rich industrial past back to the future.
The Kingdom has become the first country in the Arab world to commit to investing in its industrial heritage with the establishment on Monday of a dedicated preservation society.
Turning the famous Hijaz railway into a heritage site is already one of the ambitious cultural projects being considered for the future.
Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan announced the setting up of the Saudi Society for the Preservation of Industrial Heritage at a meeting attended by Minister of Commerce and Investment Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qassabi and Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih.
The prince noted that a country’s industrial history reflected its level of civic progress and said: “Saudi Arabia has an established industrial heritage going back thousands of years and has monuments that deserve care and consideration.”
Examples of the Kingdom’s industrial past and present include its involvement in sectors such as oil, water supply systems, minerals, gold, transport, cement and concrete.
The new society aims to raise awareness of cultural landmarks associated with historic Saudi industries by organizing workshops and promotional campaigns in cooperation with commercial bodies, while also preserving, documenting and enhancing heritage sites throughout the country.
Dr. Miles Oglethorpe, board member of The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH), who attended the society launch, said the Kingdom had a vast industrial heritage to draw on that could “deliver social, economic and political benefit that reinforces Saudi society.”
He told Arab News: “Industry is extremely important, and the history of industry is that which lies behind how we live today. All across the world there are hugely important industries that have employed people and changed the world around them. Sometimes they have rapidly altered the environment and landscapes, sometimes not very nicely, other times very spectacularly.
“Industry lies at the heart of our daily lives today, therefore it’s an amazing historical resource, a source of so many different stories and something that effects millions of people who work in it, or have worked in it, or families who’ve worked in it.”
On Saudi Arabia and its impact on the world, Oglethorpe said: “If you step back for a moment and ask has Saudi Arabia had any impact on the wider world, the answer is a massive yes.
“Saudi petroleum dominated the world and is still extremely important, so the history of that is very significant. Both how it works now and how it originated.”
Oglethorpe said the Saudi concrete industry was another good example of a global export, which had even been put to good use in the Harry Potter movies. “Hogwarts Express, that is in Scotland, the first mass concrete bridge in the world and an enormous structure.”
The TICCIH official noted huge potential for turning the Hijaz railway into an industrial heritage site.
“Railways are the low-hanging fruit, one of the things that you can make immediate progress with because, everybody loves railways. Many children across the world are brought up with Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s already recognized and there are international links. It would be an immediate win, but there is a lot of work to be done.
“It would capture the imagination,” added Oglethorpe.
“The Hijaz railway is famous worldwide. There have even been movies made about it and you have major historic figures, both Saudi and foreign figures like T. E. Lawrence, so you know you can make a national and international impact.”
He said one of the first aspects of turning old industrial sites into heritage attractions was to encourage communities to show an interest in their local history. Their contribution would be “important and valuable” because their family histories were often tied to these places.
Oglethorpe also pointed to the educational value of delving into the industrial past. “What industry gives you is a way into an education of STEM subjects. We are trying to get many men and women into STEM subjects. Try to get kids at a young age engaged into where steel comes from. How a steam locomotive works. How you build things like this.”
He said that as well as teaching people about the technologies they could also learn the skills required to keep them alive.