Saudi e-visas offer international scholars passage to the Kingdom’s past

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Updated 10 January 2021

Saudi e-visas offer international scholars passage to the Kingdom’s past

  • Middle East scholars waiting for Saudi Arabia to revive its e-visa scheme after COVID-19 forced authorities to suspend it
  • Granting greater access to its historical treasure trove forms part of the Kingdom’s strategy to educate the world about its unique heritage

RIYADH: Scholars of Islam and the Middle East the world over have long craved a glimpse of the rich collections of artifacts and manuscripts held in Saudi Arabia’s libraries and museums. So, when Saudi authorities launched its e-visa system in September 2019, academics leaped at the opportunity to visit the country.

Among them was Sajjad Rizvi, an associate professor of Islamic intellectual history and Islamic studies at the UK’s University of Exeter, who traveled to Saudi Arabia in December 2019 on the e-visa to conduct scholarly interviews in Riyadh, Madinah and Eastern Province.

“Organizing the e-visa was amazingly easy and entering and travelling around was very easy as well,” Rizvi told Arab News.

His plans to return to the Kingdom in 2020 to consult manuscripts in the King Faisal Foundation (KFF) library had to be shelved when the coronavirus pandemic forced Saudi authorities to suspend the e-visa program for travelers from the worst affected countries in February and to close its borders altogether in March.

Fortunately for Rizvi and other scholars, digital copies of the manuscripts and many other collections can still be requested online.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism said last year it issued more than 400,000 tourist visas in the first six months of its new visa system, which allowed citizens from 49 countries the opportunity to apply online or get a visa on arrival when they visited for the first time.




The introduction of the e-visa system last year has enabled many more academics to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia than in the past. (AFP/File Photo)

Rizvi first visited Saudi Arabia in 2011 with colleagues from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies following an invitation from the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS) in Riyadh. The two institutions are now linked by a memorandum of understanding.

KFCRIS established its Visiting Fellowship Program in 1999 to help facilitate projects for Saudi and international scholars. The program has already helped more than 500 scholars from 50 countries.

The introduction of the e-visa system last year has enabled many more academics to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia than in the past.

Reports in September raised hopes that Saudi Arabia would resume issuing tourist visas in January 2021, after a stoppage necessitated by coronavirus-linked travel restrictions. However, with a new strain of the virus spreading from Europe and forcing Saudi authorities to temporarily suspend international flights in December, a delay in the resumption of the service cannot be ruled out.

“I do hope that the e-visa system will be reintroduced once things settle in a post COVID-19 era,” Rizvi said. “For my own interests, the manuscripts in places like the King Faisal Foundation in Madinah, as well as in some private libraries in the Eastern Province, are very valuable.

“I am an intellectual historian, interested in the way in which ideas travel. I have also developed an interest in some of the rock inscriptions in the Madinah area and it would be great to go back and see them.”

Another academic who is monitoring travel updates closely is Nir Shafir, an assistant professor of history at the University of California who specializes in the pre-modern Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. He hopes to visit the Kingdom as soon as possible to examine its historical collections as well as explore its tourist hotspots.

FASTFACT

King Fahad National Library

* Riyadh’s King Fahad National Library has 6,000 original manuscripts and nearly 73,000 photocopied transcripts.

“I use a number of collections that have been made available online that are in Saudi Arabia,” Shafir told Arab News.

“I work on manuscripts and I look up the books, all copied by hand, which are now mostly collected by institutional libraries such as the Suleymaniye Library in Turkey and Dar Al-Kutub in Egypt.

“I would like to do the same with the collections in Saudi Arabia, which are quite rich, like the King Abdulaziz Public Library and a few others. Also, the Masjid al-Haram (in Makkah) has its own library. I’ve looked at old catalogues from that library and it would be interesting to see, if possible, what remains of the manuscript collection there.”

Shafir previously used manuscripts provided digitally by King Saud University’s library for his paper titled “In Ottoman Holy Land: The Hajj and the Road from Damascus, 1500-1800.”

Digital collections of the kind used by Shafir are an invaluable resource for academics unable to access them in person. Take the King Fahad National Library, which is playing a seminal role in the preservation of Islamic heritage. Established in 1990 in Riyadh, the library is home to more than 6,000 original manuscripts — many of them rare and ancient, including the exquisite Kufic Qur’an, dating to the 9th century CE — and a total of 73,000 paper and electronic transcripts.




Riyadh’s King Fahad National Library has 6,000 original manuscripts and nearly 73,000 photocopied transcripts. (Supplied)

The library also enables researchers, history lovers and general readers to access its precious collection though a range of electronic services. Researchers can request a specific manuscript, a rare book or a photograph to aid in their work.

In fact, digitization is a top priority for Saudi authorities. In 2018, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) set up a virtual museum to host the “Saudi Archaeological Masterpieces through the Ages,” which displayed more than 400 rare artifacts from Saudi Arabia, the US, China and Europe.

“If you can find a good copy online and the quality is good, you can tell quite a bit about (the manuscript),” Shafir told Arab News.

“But what I do is I don’t just look at the text. I am not just reading for information. I am also looking at who’s the copyist, when was it copied, who is it copied for, what other stuff is mixed in, because the books and these texts are never by themselves. They are usually grouped with other texts. So sometimes I want to look at what other texts are around it.

“If it’s a good library and set up well, you can see some of that online. But there are other things that are important to look at in person: the type of paper, the binding, and so forth. It is always nicer to see them in person. You always get a better sense of the book when you go to a library and touch the actual document.”

More broadly, Saudi authorities are eager to reopen to promote the Kingdom’s archaeological and architectural wonders as part of the Kingdom’s strategy to diversify the economy and educate the world about its unique heritage.

Tourism plays a key role in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan for economic diversification.




King Fahad National Library is playing a seminal role in the preservation of Islamic heritage. Established in 1990 in Riyadh, the library is home to more than 6,000 original manuscripts — many of them rare and ancient, including the exquisite Kufic Qur’an, dating to the 9th century CE — and a total of 73,000 paper and electronic transcripts. (Supplied)

“We opened our doors and hearts to international tourists to come and explore Saudi Arabia and experience Saudi Arabia, and experience our culture, our nature, our pristine and great beaches of the Red Sea or the East Coast and our major cities,” Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb told the Arab News talk show Frankly Speaking in December.

To this end, Saudi Arabia has plans to invest up to $200 billion and welcome 100 million visitors by 2030. It aims to increase the tourism sector’s contribution to its gross domestic product (GDP) to 10 percent.

The country has created a national destination promoter, the Saudi Tourism Authority, and launched a $9 billion Tourism Development Fund.

According to a Forbes Magazine report, by 2022 Saudi Arabia wants tourism to contribute 4.5 percent to its GDP and add 260,000 jobs, 150,000 hotel rooms and 62 million tourism visits a year.

Despite the pandemic, the Kingdom has forged ahead with its mega-projects, which are designed to attract international and domestic tourists, create millions of new jobs and bring foreign investment into the economy. These include NEOM, the Red Sea Project, Amaala and Qiddiya.

Academics such as Rizvi and Shafir make up just one of several categories of potential visitors to Saudi Arabia in a post-pandemic age of normal air travel. Resumption of the e-visa service is something they must be eagerly looking forward to.

 


Ministry campaign checks COVID-19 measures in Riyadh mosques

Updated 06 March 2021

Ministry campaign checks COVID-19 measures in Riyadh mosques

RIYADH: The Riyadh branch of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance on Friday organized an awareness and monitoring campaign to ensure mosques were implementing COVID-19 precautionary and preventive measures, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The campaign was carried out in cooperation with the General Directorate of Health Affairs in Riyadh and a number of volunteer associations.
Healthcare volunteers and mosque supervisors took part in the campaign. Participants told worshippers to comply with social distancing measures, use their own prayer mats, and wear a face mask at all times.
They also organized the entry and exit of worshippers, in addition to distributing masks and prayer mats among them.
The director general of the ministry’s branch in Riyadh, Ahmed Al-Fares, said the campaign aimed to help raise awareness about COVID-19 prevention methods.
He added that the campaign was in line with the efforts of various state agencies to fight the pandemic and also promote a culture of volunteering among government bodies.

 

 


Stitch in time: Saudi fashion dresses for the future

The Saudi Cup showcased traditional outfits, with the Ministry of Culture’s fashion commission encouraging a dress code that required racegoers to highlight their heritage. (Supplied)
Updated 06 March 2021

Stitch in time: Saudi fashion dresses for the future

  • Traditional wear gets a modern makeover as designers keep the past alive

JEDDAH: As Saudi Arabia sets out to introduce its culture, history and social life to a global audience, fashion is finding it has a key role to play in the Kingdom’s “brand strategy.”

Traditional wear proudly worn by both Saudis and expats at the recent Saudi Cup showed how age-old cultural styles could find new life in a contemporary setting.
While fashions can reflect a specific era, they also can act as a transition to the future, with fabrics, cuts, motifs and embroidery designs, and even colors and layers, keeping the story alive.
The Saudi Cup showcased traditional outfits, with the Ministry of Culture’s fashion commission encouraging a dress code that required racegoers to highlight their heritage, and designers to showcase their exclusive works, mixing the contemporary with the old.
Although Western outfits dominate the world fashion market, Saudi Arabia is choosing to stay connected with its traditional dress.
Saudi designers are constantly introducing new trends in the way outfits are made or worn, finding inspiration in age-old styles or seeking to bring the traditional clothing of a region into the present.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Although Western outfits dominate the world fashion market, Saudi Arabia is choosing to stay connected with its traditional dress.

• Saudi designers are constantly introducing new trends in the way outfits are made or worn, finding inspiration in age-old styles or seeking to bring the traditional clothing of a region into the present.

• Mohammed Khoja, a fashion designer who uses traditional approaches in his contemporary work, believes that his collections help shed light on cultural elements that appeal to both local and international audiences. 

• International events, from Eid celebrations at Saudi missions across the globe to overseas university students celebrating an occasion, allow Saudis to don traditional clothing to represent their homeland.

• Omaima Kindassa, a Saudi designer and owner of a contemporary heritage boutique, said that events such as the Saudi Cup allowed Saudis to represent their own region and culture, as well as show the Kingdom’s rich heritage and diverse culture to the world.

• Princess Nourah Al-Faisal, the designer behind Nuun Jewels, hoped to represent the historical beauty and color of traditional Saudi clothing in a way that encouraged people to embrace and celebrate their culture.

Mohammed Khoja, a fashion designer who uses traditional approaches in his contemporary work, said: “Since the beginning of my fashion design career, cultural elements have appealed to me. I am particularly driven by being able to contribute in documenting and potentially giving cultural elements more importance.”
Khoja believes that his collections help shed light on cultural elements that appeal to both local and international audiences.

Traditional wear proudly worn by both Saudis and expats showed how age-old cultural styles could find new life in a contemporary setting.

The same elements have also helped him identify with his own contemporary identity, he said.
Omaima Kindassa, a Saudi designer and owner of a contemporary heritage boutique, said that events such as the Saudi Cup allowed Saudis to represent their own region and culture, as well as show the Kingdom’s rich heritage and diverse culture to the world.
“I’ve been designing and modernizing traditional Saudi wear for 10 years,” Kindassa told Arab News. “Now many younger designers are pursuing that as well because they have fallen in love with our heritage.”
She added: “If the current generation were to wear traditional clothes, they would find them overbearing and heavy, especially accessory-embellished designs and those adorned by stones. Modernizing these outfits makes them relevant to today’s generation and ensures our tradition keeps pace with fashion.”

The Saudi Cup showcased traditional outfits, with the Ministry of Culture’s fashion commission encouraging a dress code that required racegoers to highlight their heritage, and designers to showcase their exclusive works, mixing the contemporary with the old. (Supplied)

Kindassa specializes in traditional wear from the Kingdom’s regions but also modern clothing “that tell tales of the long past.”
“Each region offers its own rich heritage through its designs, from the geometric elegant shapes, the vibrant colors, the embroidery — it looks like a painting to admire,” she said.
International events, from Eid celebrations at Saudi missions across the globe to overseas university students celebrating an occasion, allow Saudis to don traditional clothing to represent their homeland.
Princess Nourah Al-Faisal, the designer behind Nuun Jewels, told Arab News that the Saudi Cup was a “great opportunity to present the variety, regionality and beauty that is Saudi culture.”


She was brought in as a consultant for the project, a link between the Saudi Cup and the Ministry of Culture, “to curate the event in terms of looks and feel.”
Princess Nourah said the idea to promote traditional Saudi fashion was not hers, but came from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The princess hoped to represent the historical beauty and color of traditional Saudi clothing in a way that encouraged people to embrace and celebrate their culture. She also wanted people to take ownership of their heritage, and see designers and communities using it as inspiration for future designs.
“So not just reproducing traditional cultural dress, but also taking it as a point of reference and moving forward into the future, recreating it, developing it and having fun with it by creating something completely new,” she said.
Impressed with the outcome, she hopes to build on this momentum where people celebrate culture every day.
“There are a number of entities within Saudi Arabia, organizations that are all about preserving our heritage; things like regional embroidery, jewelry, costumes, and really making sure that they’re archiving it, whether through photographs or through the actual pieces. I think that is something that we have been working on as a nation either in the private sector or the public sector for a while,” she said.


Who’s Who: Muhammad Ali Albakri, IATA senior vice president for customer, financial and digital services

Updated 06 March 2021

Who’s Who: Muhammad Ali Albakri, IATA senior vice president for customer, financial and digital services

Muhammad Ali Albakri has been appointed senior vice president for customer, financial and digital services at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Since January 2017, Albakri held the role of regional vice president for the Africa and Middle East region.

Succeeding Aleks Popovich, Albakri is now responsible for IATA’s financial settlement products and services. He will be expected to process more than $450 billion of industry every year.
His responsibilities also include strengthening IATA’s client and customer activities, along with the company’s digital transformation initiatives for the benefit of the aviation industry.
IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said Popovich left behind a great team with a clear focus on customer service that will continue to drive critical changes under Albakri’s capable leadership.
The company’s website described Albakri as “an agent of change,” who will transform the MENA team to better serve member needs and pioneer the work of IATA’s digital transformation advisory council.
“Albakri is well prepared to guide the development of IATA’s commercial offerings, settlement services and digital leadership,” de Juniac said in a statement. “In normal times, these are critical functions, even more so in the middle of an industry crisis.”
Albakri previously worked for Saudia, the Kingdom’s national flag carrier, and served as its vice president of information technology. From 2009 to 2016, he was in charge of strengthening the company’s technology infrastructure and modernizing its financial practices. Albakri earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in information sciences from the University of Pittsburgh.


Cinemas, gyms and restaurants to reopen in Saudi Arabia

Updated 06 March 2021

Cinemas, gyms and restaurants to reopen in Saudi Arabia

  • All events and parties will continue to be suspended until further notice
  • Social gatherings remain restricted to a maximum of 20 people

RIYADH: Cinemas, gyms and sports centers will be allowed to reopen in Saudi Arabia from Sunday.
Indoor dining can also resume in restaurants and cafes along with other recreational activities, the interior ministry said on Friday.
However, all events and parties will continue to be suspended until further notice. This includes weddings, corporate meetings, events in banquet halls and social events.
Social gatherings remain restricted to a maximum of 20 people.
The Kingdom suspended recreational events on Feb. 3 to halt the spread of COVID-19. The suspension was extended on Feb. 14 for 20 days.
The ministry urged people to adhere to measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and said there would be an increase in spot checks to ensure everyone followed the rules.

 

 


Saudi Arabia announces 5 more COVID-19 deaths

Updated 05 March 2021

Saudi Arabia announces 5 more COVID-19 deaths

  • The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom has increased to 369,922
  • A total of 6,519 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia announced five deaths from COVID-19 and 384 new infections on Friday.
Of the new cases, 187 were recorded in Riyadh, 68 in the Eastern Province, 55 in Makkah, 24 in the Northern Borders region, 10 in Madinah, six in Hail, five in Asir, five in Najran and three in Jazan.
The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom increased to 369,922 after 309 more patients recovered from the virus.
A total of 6,519 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far.