Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia:
Saudi tour leader Nada Alfuraih leads guests through an 18th-century palace built of mud and straw, the site where the kingdom’s royal family allegedly first plotted the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula.
She pauses in an airy auditorium and talks about this aspect of the story of her origins in her country. Her only regret is that today, nearly 300 years later, some young Saudis seem unaware of this.
“I meet visitors who have no idea. They must have skipped this part of their education or something,” she told AFP.
The restored palace, in the historic Diriyah district on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh, will open to the public for the first time later this year.
Analysts say it’s part of a larger effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who was placed first in line to the throne five years ago next week – to both fuel Saudi nationalism and reframe Saudi history. .
Exhibits scattered throughout the palace highlight the achievements of the Al-Saud family dating back well before the kingdom’s official establishment in the 1930s.
At the same time, they make no mention of working with Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, the ardent cleric who lived nearby and championed a purist form of Islam known as Wahhabism. That legendary alliance has long fed the kingdom’s harsh image.
Instead, the new Diriyah offers attractions more in line with Prince Mohammed’s vision of a modern Saudi Arabia opening up to the world: fine dining, art galleries — even a Formula-E racetrack.
“Diriyah perfectly sums up the new Saudi nationalism,” said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who has studied its development.
“It puts the Al-Saud at the center as the main authors of Saudi history and architects of Saudi unity, while erasing Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab from the national narrative.”
She added: “The change isn’t subtle, it’s really in your face.”
Defining a Dynasty
While the country that bears the name Al-Saud is only 90 years old, the family dynasty traces its origins to the 18th century.
Diriyah was the family’s original power base and the place where it made its pact with Abdul Wahhab in 1744, whose teachings spread by the power of the sword.
Rapid expansion followed, but the family would be overthrown twice before Abdul Aziz bin al-Saud established the current Saudi state and proclaimed himself king in 1932.
Six years later, oil was mined, eventually transforming the kingdom into one of the world’s richest nations.
Through it all, historical ties to Abdul Wahhab lent legitimacy to the rulers of a land that contained Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
When Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, first expressed interest in the redevelopment of Diriyah in the 1970s, “he kept a place, albeit scaled down, to commemorate the cleric,” Diwan said.
But Prince Mohammed, now the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has overseen a sideline of religious authorities, most notably the cane-wielding religious police who chased men from malls to pray.
As for Diriyah, he “sees it as a global attraction,” Diwan said. “And in its program of art biennials, world wrestling and raves, Wahhabism doesn’t coexist easily.”
A Saudi ‘Acropolis’?
The man hired to bring this new Diriyah to life is Jerry Inzerillo, a Brooklyn entertainment executive who had a cameo in the 2006 James Bond movie “Casino Royale.”
In an interview with AFP, Inzerillo spoke of Diriyah’s potential, saying it could be to Saudis what the Acropolis is to Greeks and the Colosseum to Italians.
“There was a generation that said, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of mud houses and that’s not our future,'” he said.
“But this king believes that the national identity and continuing source of pride must lie in a rich Saudi past.”
The same thought, he said, was behind a new Founding Day holiday inaugurated in February that honors the Diriyah-era leaders of the Al-Saud family.
Asked about Prince Mohammed’s role, Inzerillo said he “approves any representation” of Diriyah and that he personally spent up to 30 hours meticulously reviewing the street layout.
Inzerillo rejected the idea that Abdul Wahhab was being written out of history, saying that “there will be a celebration of him” along with other imams.
But opposite the old palace, the Bujairi area where Abdul Wahhab once lived has been transformed into an upscale dining district – just one of many entertainment highlights.
A restored version of Abdul Wahhab’s original mosque is still open on the site, but a research center, built about seven years ago and dedicated to his branch of Islam, is not.
The palace itself has zones for historical reenactment, sword dancing, falconry and horse shows.
Elsewhere in Diriyah, venues have already hosted concerts by Pitbull and the Swedish House Mafia and the 2019 “Clash on the Dunes” heavyweight boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.
Developers have figured that they haven’t turned Diriyah into “a theme park,” Inzerillo said, though he added that he says heritage and entertainment are “highly compatible.”
“Diriyah had music 300 years ago. It had the best musicians in the area. It had art, it had painters… What happens is that if a society is going to be fulfilled and happy, it has to be entertained,” he said.
“There is no vulgarity to entertain.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)