The book that drew the world’s attention to Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric rock art 

Ancient rock art is Saudi Arabia’s greatest heritage treasure — and attests to a history of human culture that stretches back 10,000 years. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 November 2022

The book that drew the world’s attention to Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric rock art 

  • Rare first-edition copy of “Prehistoric Rock Art of Northern Saudi Arabia” was on sale at Sharjah International Book Fair
  • There was little or no recognition of the Kingdom’s ancient past before Majeed Khan’s book was published in 1993

LONDON: In May 1976, Majeed Khan, a young graduate of the University of Sindh, Pakistan, traveled to Saudi Arabia to join the Ministry of Tourism as an archaeological consultant, advising on the development of museums and the conduct of archaeological investigations in the country.

It was to prove an inspired appointment.

Back then, with Saudi Arabia riding the wave of the first great oil boom and focused necessarily on its rapidly evolving future, archaeology in the Kingdom was in its infancy.

But in Khan the country had found a champion for one of its greatest heritage treasures — ancient rock art, thousands of examples of which are strewn across the landscape and which attest to a history of human culture that stretches back 10,000 years.

Khan, who lives in Riyadh, and at the age of 80 still works as a consultant to the Ministry of Culture’s Antiquities Department, has devoted his entire working life to a subject that continues to fascinate and surprise him to this day.

He received another surprise last month when he learned that his seminal book, “Prehistoric Rock Art of Northern Saudi Arabia,” published by the Saudi Ministry of Education’s Department of Antiquities and Museums in 1993, was now considered a collector’s item.

A first-edition copy was offered for sale for £1,250 ($1,448) by a specialist London book dealer at the UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair, which ran from Nov. 2 to 13.

That, Khan felt, was a lot of money. But on the other hand, “it was the first research book on rock art published in any Arab country,” he said. At the time it came out, “there was no rock art taught in any Saudi university and no real rock art research in Saudi Arabia.”

Furthermore, there was little or no recognition in the wider world of Saudi Arabia’s ancient past — a past that is now being embraced enthusiastically as the backbone of major tourism projects, such as AlUla and Diriyah, designed to bring in millions of visitors a year to the Kingdom.

A first-edition copy was offered for sale for £1,250 ($1,448) by a specialist London book dealer at the UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair, which ran from Nov. 2 to 13. (Supplied)

For example, in the supposedly comprehensive 1998 Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, published in 1998, there was not a single mention of Saudi Arabia — an oversight that would be dramatically exposed by Khan’s work.

To describe Khan as a pioneer in his field is to understate the impact he has had on the understanding of the extent and importance of the ancient past of the Kingdom.

Over the past four decades he has published dozens of research papers. The first, which he co-authored, was on “The Lower Miocene Fauna of Assarrar, Eastern Arabia,” published in Atlal, the Journal of Saudi Arabian Archaeology, in 1981.

His first book, which came out in 1993, shortly before his groundbreaking work on the prehistoric rock art of Saudi Arabia, was “The Origin and Evolution of Ancient Arabian Inscriptions,” also published by the Ministry of Education.

But it was to petroglyphs that he would devote the greater part of his energies, an academic commitment that in 2015 culminated in the rock art in the Hail region of Saudi Arabia being inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Along with two colleagues from the then-named Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, Jamal Omar and vice-president Prof. Ali Al-Ghabban, it was Khan’s name that appeared on the nomination text that saw the twin sites near Jubbah and Shuwaymis in the northern province of Hail recognized by UNESCO as being of “outstanding universal value.”

To describe Majeed Khan as a pioneer in his field is to understate. (Supplied)

As Khan told Arab News in January 2021, “it was for me the most emotional moment of my 40 years of research.”

Not that he is resting on his laurels. Hail is not the only region in Saudi Arabia where rock art can be found, and “these days I am working on the rock-art site of Hima, Najran, to see it, too, placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.”

There are more than 2,000 rock-art sites around Saudi Arabia. But the greatest concentration of Neolithic petroglyphs, or rock carvings, and the oldest known examples, dating back 10,000 years, is to be found in the north of the country at two sites 300 kilometers apart in the Hail Province.

The ancient forebears of today’s Saudis had no paper, pens, or written language with which to record their time on earth.

But with the rocks of their dramatic landscapes as their canvas, thousands of years ago the ancient peoples of the land that would become Saudi Arabia found a way to leave their mark on history, with an astonishing pictorial representation of a now forgotten world, painstakingly pecked, chiseled and engraved out of the sandstone rocks of the region.

The first of the two Hail sites is at Jabal Umm Sinman, a rocky outcrop to the west of the town of Jubbah, some 90 kilometers northwest of the city of Hail and 680 kilometers from the capital, Riyadh.

The town’s origins date back to the dawn of Arab civilization, when the hills of Umm Sinman overlooked a freshwater lake, which eventually would be lost beneath the sands of the surrounding Nefud desert some 6,000 years ago.

It was on these hills, in the words of the UNESCO nomination document co-authored by Khan, that the ancestors of today’s Saudi Arabians “left the marks of their presence, their religions, social, cultural, intellectual and philosophical perspectives of their beliefs about life and death, metaphysical and cosmological ideologies.”

The rock art of Jubbah, said Khan, “represented all phases of human presence from the Neolithic, 10,000 years before the present, until the recent past,” and reflected a time when the climate and landscape were very different from today.

Etched upon the rocks, often at mysteriously inaccessible heights, are the trappings of a lost world: A parade of dancers, long-forgotten gods and goddesses, mythological figures, half-human, half-beast, and animals including sheep, ibex, camels, horses, wolves, ostriches and — reflecting a time when prey roamed abundant on the once lush plains of Arabia — lions.

“The type of animals (pictured) suggested changes in climate and environment,” said Khan. “Large ox figures indicated a cool and humid climate, while the absence of ox figures and the appearance of camel petroglyphs represented hot and dry conditions.


• Sharjah International Book Fair began in 1982 to realize the vision of Dr. Sultan Al-Qasimi, ruler of the eponymous UAE emirate.

• The festival this year ran from Nov. 2 -13.

“Both at Jubbah and Shuwaymis this change in fauna and flora clearly represented gradual but drastic change in society and climate in the prehistoric and pre-Islamic era.”

Importantly, he said, similarities in themes and depictions in other parts of the world, including Africa, India, Australia, Europe and America, showed that “Saudi Arabia was part of world heritage and cultural traditions.”

Like other peoples around the world, “ancient Arab artists were drawing the animals with which they were living and depicting their social activities, like dancing and religious rituals.”

The second of the twin Hail sites is at Jabal Al-Manjor and Raat, 220 kilometers southwest of Jubbah near the village of Shuwaymis. Remarkably, its treasures were discovered only 20 years ago, a remarkable story in which, naturally, Khan played a leading role.

In 2002, Aramco World, the magazine of the Saudi national oil company, reported that in March the previous year a bedouin grazing his camels had stumbled on strange marks on a remote cluster of rocks. He happened to mention his find to a teacher from the local town of Shuwaymis. He alerted the authorities and they called in Khan.

“Yes, the story is correct,” Khan said. “I met both the bedouin and Mr. Saad Rawsan, the director of archaeology in the Hail region, who took us to the sites for further investigations and research.”

Together, he discovered, the twin sites told the story of over 9,000 years of human history, from the earliest pictorial records of hunting to the development of writing, religion and the domestication of animals including cattle, horses and camels.

As the UNESCO documents record, these sites justify their inscription on the World Heritage List because they feature “large numbers of petroglyphs of exceptional quality attributed to between 6,000 and 9,000 years of human history, followed in the last 3,000 years by very early development of writing that reflects the bedouin culture, ending in Qur’anic verses.”

Furthermore, the Jubbah and Shuwaymis sites comprise “the world’s largest and most magnificent surviving corpus of Neolithic petroglyphs.”

Neolithic rock art is found at many locations across Eurasia and North Africa, “but nowhere in such dense concentration or with such consistently high visual quality” as in this remote part of northwestern Saudi Arabia.

Peter Harrington, the London specialist book dealer that brought Khan’s book to Sharjah for the book fair, described it as “a pioneering monograph ... the first and sole edition of this seminal work, which addresses a hitherto neglected subject, challenges the received wisdom that influences in rock art in the region originated from Mesopotamia, the Levant, and the Nile Valley, helped to put the Kingdom’s ancient past on the map of modern knowledge, and paved the way to the listing in 2015 of the rock art of the Hail region as a UNESCO World Heritage site.”

“I am extremely surprised to see the cost of my book,” Khan said after Arab News broke the news to him of the price being asked for the out-of-print volume at the Sharjah International Book Fair, although he had some news of his own.

“The ministry is printing it again.”

That, however, is unlikely to prove a deterrent for collectors always keen to snap up rare first editions of books dealing with the region’s history — and there are few histories as fascinating as that of the rock art of Saudi Arabia, and few books as significant in the growing appreciation of the Kingdom’s past as Khan’s 30-year-old volume.

Malaysian minister lauds Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Route initiative

Updated 01 June 2023

Malaysian minister lauds Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Route initiative

RIYADH: Malaysian Interior Minister Saifuddin Nasution praised Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Route initiative, facilitating the travel procedures of Hajj pilgrims from Malaysia.

The statement was made during Nasution’s visit on Wednesday to a hall dedicated to the initiative at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where he was briefed on its readiness to facilitate pilgrims’ journey.

The Makkah Route initiative enables Hajj pilgrims from six countries to complete immigration, cargo and travel procedures before departing for the Kingdom.

Kenyan defense minister meets Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition chief

Updated 31 May 2023

Kenyan defense minister meets Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition chief

RIYADH: Secretary-General of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition Maj. Gen. Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Moghedi met Kenyan Defense Minister Aden Bare Duale in Nairobi on Wednesday to discuss counterterrorism and violent extremism-related issues.

During his meeting with Al-Moghedi, the Kenyan minister praised the coalition’s framework – for military, counterterrorism, anti-terrorism financing, as well as intellectual and media matters – as a strategic pillar in fighting terrorism and violent extremism.

He added that terrorism has its roots in intellectual and ideological orientations, which constitute the basis of the extremist approach.

“Working on preparing the mindset and integrating it within the proper framework constitutes one of the proactive action pillars aimed to repress and contain extremist thinking,” Duale said.

Al-Moghedi said that strategic initiatives by the coalition in its counterterrorism efforts have taken into consideration the hierarchy of terrorist tendencies.

The secretary-general also spoke about social media and communication platforms, and their role in influencing users. He also discussed countering illegal terror financing through military support and assistance services.


Who’s Who: Hussain AbdRab Al-Nabi, vice president at SAP South Europe, Middle East and Africa

Updated 31 May 2023

Who’s Who: Hussain AbdRab Al-Nabi, vice president at SAP South Europe, Middle East and Africa

Hussain AbdRab Al-Nabi is an innovation and strategy marketing leader and expert who has worked in both marketing and finance fields. He is vice president and head of marketing strategy at SAP South Europe, Middle East and Africa.

He has contributed significantly to SAP throughout his more than decade-long experience with the company.

As VP, his responsibilities include developing and implementing cohesive marketing strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and managing relationships with regional and global stakeholders across all departments.

AbdRab Al-Nabi is also executive marketing director at SAP for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His responsibilities cover seven countries and more than 13 major cities.

Before that, he worked as head of marketing transformation at SAP, where he led a team for restructuring the scope of marketing within the targeted countries.

In 2016, he was appointed marketing director for the newly segmented market unit of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen, and as a financial services marketing program head for the MENA region. During that time, AbdRab Al-Nabi developed marketing programs for the financial services industry.

Previously at SAP, he was assigned as marketing lead for the public services and energy, and natural resources industries, and he worked closely with industry principles to drive a focused marketing plan.

He first joined SAP in 2011 as a country marketing manager, handling the marketing and demand generation initiatives in Saudi Arabian operations.

In 2008, AbdRab Al-Nabi worked at Zain Group as a segment manager of corporate marketing and acting head of business marketing.

Before that, he was a relationship manager in the commercial markets division at SAMBA Financial Group.

AbdRab Al-Nabi started his career in 2001 as a credit and marketing senior officer at ORIX Leasing company, and later worked as a financial controller at Arab National Bank.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. AbdRab Al-Nabi completed the Esade executive leadership program and the Misk leaders program last year. He has also obtained certifications from the Association of International Product Marketing and Management.


Saudi citizen’s kidnapping adds new chapter to Lebanon’s chronicle of crime and impunity

Updated 31 May 2023

Saudi citizen’s kidnapping adds new chapter to Lebanon’s chronicle of crime and impunity

  • Despite Mashari Al-Mutairi’s record-fast rescue, incident revives memories of abductions, hijackings, and armed robberies
  • Saudi Arabia is committed to having Lebanon back in the Arab fold, says Saudi researcher Salman Al-Ansari

JEDDAH: Despite the record-fast rescue by Lebanese security services on Tuesday of a kidnapped Saudi citizen, the incident comes as yet another reminder of the many heists, abductions and hijackings that have plagued the Arab country since the 1970s.

Mashari Al-Mutairi, an employee of Saudi Arabia’s Saudia airlines who lived in the Beirut suburb of Aramoun, was abducted at about 3 a.m. on Sunday. The Lebanese Army’s intelligence directorate found and freed him after a security operation on the border with Syria.

He was received at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut by Ambassador Walid Bukhari, who said in a statement: “The released Saudi citizen is in good health, and we thank the army and internal security forces. The security efforts confirm the Lebanese authorities’ keenness to secure tourism security.”

News of Al-Mutairi’s abduction will have come as little surprise to millions of Lebanese who have endured decades of similar disappearances, hostage situations and armed robberies — crimes that are again on the rise as the nation grapples with chronic economic woes.

Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid bin Abdullah Bukhari, right, and Lebanon’s caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi attend a press conference at Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)

In the first 10 months of 2021, the number of car thefts rose by 212 percent, robberies by 266 percent and murders by 101 percent compared to the same period of 2019, according to figures from International Information, an independent consultancy based in Beirut.

Ever since the 1975-90 civil war, Lebanon has been a transit, source and destination country for arms trafficking. These same networks are today used to move stolen goods, control the black market and facilitate the burgeoning drugs trade — many of them controlled by the armed Shiite group Hezbollah, which continues to dominate Lebanese public life.

“Any country that has a non-state actor within it is considered a ‘failed state,’” Salman Al-Ansari, a Saudi political researcher, told Arab News. “Lebanon has never been this dominated by a militia that works for an outside power.

“The crime, drug smuggling, economic collapse, currency decline are only symptoms of the actual root problem, which is the lack of national sovereignty. There is no point in rectifying the symptoms as long as the actual root problem exists. It’s like hoping to treat a serious illness with a painkiller.

“Lebanon should change course and realize that their future is very dark if they allow a non-state actor to dictate its trajectory.”

Events in Lebanon today have echoes of the bad old days of the 1980s, when kidnappings, torture, murder and drug trafficking reached endemic proportions against the backdrop of the civil war, which devastated the country.

Back then, Westerners were common targets. In 1982, pro-Iran extremists kidnapped Davis S. Dodge, then president of American University in Beirut, from the university campus. He was flown to a prison near Tehran and held until his release a year later.

In 1984, Dodge’s successor as president of the AUB, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, was shot dead by two gunmen outside his office. The Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility for the killing, citing the US military presence in Lebanon as its motive.

The same year, William Francis Buckley, a CIA operative working at the US Embassy in Beirut, was kidnapped by Hezbollah and later murdered. One of the reasons for his abduction was thought to be the upcoming trial of 17 Iran-backed militants in Kuwait.

Several times during this period, whole planeloads of people were taken hostage. In 1984, a Kuwait Airways flight from Kuwait City to Karachi, Pakistan, was hijacked by four Lebanese and diverted to Tehran.

Due to unmet demands, the hijackers shot and killed American passengers Charles Hegna and William Stanford, both of whom were officials from the US Agency for International Development, before dumping their bodies on the tarmac.

Less than a year later, on June 14, 1985, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked soon after taking off from Athens. For three days, the plane went to and from Algiers and Beirut. US Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered aboard the flight.

Dozens of passengers were held hostage over the next two weeks until they were finally released by their captors after some of their demands were met. The hijackers had demanded the release of 700 Shiite Muslims from Israeli custody.

Western analysts accused Hezbollah of hijacking the plane, a claim the group rejected.

In 1987, British humanitarian and hostage negotiator Terry Waite traveled to Beirut to negotiate with the IJO, which had taken several hostages. However, he was himself abducted by the group and remained in captivity for 1,763 days — the first four years of which he spent in solitary confinement.

A year later, Col. William Higgins, a US marine serving with the UN forces in South Lebanon, was kidnapped and murdered by a Hezbollah-aligned splinter group of the Al-Amal movement, “Believers Resistance.”

 Malcolm Kerr, President of the American University of Beirut, who was shot and killed by gunmen as he arrived at his office on campus. (AUB)

Although Lebanon is no longer in the grip of outright civil war, the financial crisis which began in 2019, combined with the political class’s failure to establish a new government, have created an environment of growing lawlessness and desperation.

Indeed, there are indications that the kidnapping of Al-Mutairi could have been orchestrated by a criminal organization with a hand in the production and trade of the amphetamine Captagon, which blights the entire region.

Lebanese news station MTV reported in recent days that a drug dealer known as Abu Salle, who is described as one of the region’s most prominent cartel bosses, was behind Al-Mutairi’s kidnapping.

The Lebanese Army raid of a Captagon factory in connection with the kidnapping lends weight to this theory.

Criminal networks move stolen goods, control the black market and facilitate the burgeoning drugs trade in Lebanon — many of them controlled by Hezbollah. (AFP)

Although Lebanese officials were quick to condemn the kidnapping, there are concerns the incident could hamper efforts to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, which have long been strained by the influence of Hezbollah.

However, Al-Ansari is confident the kidnapping will not obstruct progress on normalization.

“This could be considered a small obstacle in the way, but at the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is committed to having Lebanon back to the Arab fold in a way that it can have its own sovereignty away from Iranian hegemony,” he said.

In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran restored diplomatic relations under a Chinese-mediated deal. How this new arrangement will impact the activities of Iran’s proxy forces throughout the region, however, remains ill-defined.

TWA Boeing 727 captain John L. Testrake from Richmond, Missouri, emerges from the cockpit of his hijacked airliner 19 June 1985 at Beirut airport to talk to newsmen. (Getty Images/AFP)

“It is still unclear what the Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will result in with regard to the Lebanese file,” Al-Ansari said. “It will de-escalate the tension, but it will not solve the problem overnight.”

Although Lebanon is a long way from reaching stability, Al-Ansari believes Saudi Arabia “will work hard with the highest level of government in Lebanon to find a way to have political and economic reforms, combat corruption and drug smuggling, and have the right kind of governance.”

International observers warned of a potential power vacuum after long-time president Michel Aoun left power in October. To this day, Lebanon’s parliament has yet to elect a new president, prolonging the nation’s political paralysis.

“The Saudi ambassador to Beirut has been vocal and supportive in finding a solution to the power vacuum and pushing for reforms and appointing a government, because at the end of the day, Saudi Arabia can’t provide anything if there is no actual solidified government in Beirut,” Al-Ansari said.

“Saudi Arabia doesn’t want anything from Lebanon except for it to be politically stable and prosperous. It will take a long time to accomplish these goals, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the Lebanese to decide their future, and the Saudis will be helping them with whatever they can.”


Sudan crisis sparks EU fears of ‘spillover’ to other nations

Updated 30 May 2023

Sudan crisis sparks EU fears of ‘spillover’ to other nations

  • The risk of having an arc of instability between the Sahel and the Red Sea is serious, says Annette Weber

RIYADH: The EU envoy to the Horn of Africa has hailed Saudi-US efforts to end the violence in Sudan but warned that the ongoing fighting continues to threaten regional stability.

In an interview with Arab News on Monday Annette Weber, the EU Special Representative, said that the risk of a “spillover” of violence was clear. 

Weber arrived in Riyadh on Saturday to discuss the Sudan crisis with officials from the Foreign Ministry and representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

“The focus was on Sudan and the current engagement of Saudi Arabia and the US in Jeddah with the two generals,” Weber said in reference to preliminary talks between the rival Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. 

She said that a solution would not be found without the Saudi and US efforts to get them talking.

“The focus was really on the question, ‘how can we get to a comprehensive agreement?’ A peace agreement. There’s clear support from the EU member states for this engagement and for these negotiations.”

While she acknowledged that gaining a permanent ceasefire might be considered “far-fetched” at this point, she hoped at least for a cessation of hostilities in order to allow aid shipments to Khartoum and beyond.

“We all made it very clear that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the US are doing this first step. The ‘pre-negotiation’ as they call it, for a ceasefire, opening a window for humanitarian (aid),” she said.

However, she warned that the violence could easily spread across the Horn of Africa without a firmer agreement in place.

“We need to contain the conflict in Sudan. I think this is very clear and I think … the faster they can agree in Jeddah to have at least a ceasefire or cessation of hostility, the less likely the spillover is going to be,” she said.

“But the risk of spillover is clear. We’ve seen people crossing ... We’ve seen the risk of the conflict crossing into Chad, into South Sudan.

“We see a lot of refugees crossing into Egypt and into neighboring countries. The region is very volatile. The risk of having an arc of instability between the Sahel and the Red Sea is serious. 

“And for us as the EU, of course, it's our neighbor. It's our neighborhood. So to contain the conflict and to end the conflict is imperative.”

A solution would not be found without the Saudi and US efforts to get them talking.

Annette Weber

According to the UN, nearly 1.4 million Sudanese have fled their homes since fighting began on April 15. Of those, 330,000 have crossed over to a neighboring country. To this day, Saudi Arabia has helped more 8,200 people from more than 100 nationalities leave Sudan on evacuation flights.

Saudi Arabia and the US urged the warring sides to work toward a ceasefire and welcomed the start of pre-negotiation talks in Jeddah on May 6.

Both sides agreed to a temporary ceasefire on May 20. However, the deal fell apart almost immediately as fighting continued in Khartoum and beyond. Saudi Arabia and the US said both sides had a hand in its breakdown.

The EU representative said that the efforts to support Sudan’s neighboring countries were “ongoing.”

“We are very much engaged in Chad and South Sudan. It’s an ongoing effort. The EU has one of the biggest donors and humanitarian efforts in Sudan now and before the war,” she said. “So we will continue on this. That’s very clear.”

During her visit to the Kingdom, Weber also met the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Jasem Albudaiwi to discuss regional cooperation and security.

“It is necessary for all of us: The EU, Saudi Arabia, UN, and everyone, to cooperate and coordinate the relief efforts and the humanitarian efforts,” she said, adding that the GCC was an “important counterpart” in the region. 

“I think we are aligned in the situation in Sudan,” she added.