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.

 


Saudi Arabia announces 3 more COVID-19 deaths

Updated 26 February 2021

Saudi Arabia announces 3 more COVID-19 deaths

  • The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom has increased to 367,691
  • A total of 6,483 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far

LONDON: Saudi Arabia announced three deaths from COVID-19 and 346 new infections on Friday.
Of the new cases, 184 were recorded in Riyadh, 74 in the Eastern Province, 38 in Makkah, nine in Asir, five in Madinah, four in Hail, four in Najran and three in Jazan.
The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom increased to 367,691 after 368 more patients recovered from the virus.
A total of 6,483 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far.


Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and US President Biden discuss regional security

Updated 26 February 2021

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and US President Biden discuss regional security

  • The talks dealt with ‘the most important issues in the region’
  • They discussed Iran’s destabilizing behavior and ending the war in Yemen

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and US President Joe Biden discussed regional and global stability during a phone call on Thursday.
The two leaders stressed the importance of strengthening the partnership between the two countries and the depth of their historical relations, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
During the call, King Salman congratulated Biden on taking office last month.
The talks dealt with the most important issues in the region and reviewed developments of common interest, the report said.
The two sides discussed Iran’s behavior in the region, its destabilizing activities and its support for terrorist groups.
“King Salman thanked the US president for Washington’s commitment to defend the Kingdom against any threats and his assurance that Iran would not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons,” SPA said.
Biden commended the Kingdom’s support for UN efforts to reach a truce and a cease-fire in Yemen.
King Salman said the Kingdom was keen to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen and to achieve security and development for the Yemeni people.
A statement from the White House said the US president told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible.


Organization of Islamic Cooperation chief, Moroccan envoy discuss cooperation

Updated 26 February 2021

Organization of Islamic Cooperation chief, Moroccan envoy discuss cooperation

JEDDAH: The secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Dr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen, on Thursday received the Moroccan ambassador to Saudi Arabia and OIC permanent representative, Dr. Mustafa Al-Mansouri.
The envoy signed the statute of the Islamic Organization for Food Security on behalf of his country and discussed with Al-Othaimeen ways to further strengthen cooperation between the OIC and Morocco. Al-Othaimeen praised Morocco’s leading role within the organization and in joint Islamic action.


Who’s Who: Dr. Mahmoud Al-Yamany, executive president of Second Health Cluster

Updated 26 February 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Mahmoud Al-Yamany, executive president of Second Health Cluster

Dr. Mahmoud Al-Yamany is the executive president of a group of Saudi healthcare facilities known as the Second Health Cluster. It includes King Fahd Medical City, Prince Mohammed bin Abdul Aziz Hospital, King Saud Hospital for Chest Diseases, Al-Yamamah Hospital, and a group of primary healthcare centers in northeastern Riyadh.
Al-Yamany has also served as director of the National Neuroscience Institute, chairman of the board of directors of the Scientific Committee for Neurosurgery, medical director of neurology and head of the department of neurosurgery, both at King Fahd Medical City, and as a consultant of neurosurgery at the Riyadh Medical Complex.
He sat as chairman of the accreditation committee for health promotion at King Fahd Medical City, was a consultant of neurosurgery at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, and was an honorary professor of assistant clinical neurosurgery at King Saud University.
In addition, he held the positions of assistant executive director of medical departments and deputy executive director for medical affairs at King Fahd Medical City.
He is a representative of Saudi Arabia and an examiner on the Arab Board of Neurosurgery, and an executive partner of the Qimam Fellowship, which provides its fellows with one-on-one mentorship from senior public and private sector leaders.
Al-Yamany gained master’s degrees in health administration, and health management from Washington University, bachelor’s degrees in medicine, and surgery from King Saud University’s college of medicine in Riyadh.


SAF improving lives of autistic children in Saudi Arabia for years

Updated 26 February 2021

SAF improving lives of autistic children in Saudi Arabia for years

  • Arab News spoke to Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Farhan Al-Saud, SAF’s chairman, to discover more about the charity’s efforts since its launch in 2009

JEDDAH: The Saudi-based Charitable Society of Autism Families (SAF) has been assisting families with autistic children and pushing for greater community inclusion for more than 10 years now. But while awareness of autism in the region has improved in that time, there remains a stigma around and lack of understanding of the condition in the Kingdom.

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate or socialize with others. It can lead to a variety of seemingly anti-social behaviors, including a lack of desire to interact with other people, displays of apparent hostility, avoidance of eye contact, repetitive patterns of behavior, and more.

Arab News spoke to Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Farhan Al-Saud, SAF’s chairman, to discover more about the charity’s efforts since its launch in 2009.

“With the right health care and resources, combined with family support, some of the children on the spectrum can gain the necessary skills to lead a ‘normal’ life and, in some cases, demonstrate special talents and capabilities not common in the wider population,” Prince Saud said. “We see many inspiring examples in our society and we regularly showcase these success stories.”

Autism is commonly diagnosed by the age of three and is more prevalent in males than females. The first studies of autism appeared in the 1960s, but less-severe varieties of autism were not identified until the 1980’s. Today, three types of ASD have been identified — each with specific characteristics that help doctors diagnose patients. They are autistic disorder, also known as classic autism; Asperger syndrome; and pervasive developmental disorders, also known as atypical autism.

Prince Saud said it is difficult to produce an accurate estimate of how many people in the Kingdom have ASD, due to the lack of sufficient studies. “However, according to the US CDC, 1 in 54 children — across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups — has been identified with ASD, meaning an approximate 1-2 percent of the global population is on the spectrum,” he said “This percentage might be applicable to the Kingdom.”

One of SAF’s most-common methods of raising awareness is through its series of public seminars, but it has recently also become more active on social media, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from its campaigning work, the society also helps arrange the provision of services including rehabilitation, educational development, guidance and assistance from other organizations for the families it supports, as well as a range of online offerings, including consultations, lectures and workshops, and rehabilitation services.

“We will continue our efforts to create a welcoming community in which autism is well understood so that those on the spectrum and their families can get the support they need,” Prince Saud said.