Under Vision 2030, a new sense of national pride has been growing among a majority of Saudis, accentuating the positive emotions related to Saudi pre-Islamic history. But there is a common misconception that Saudis have a problem with their pre-Islamic past, considering it antithetical to Islam. According to this misconception, this era should be ignored or at least not celebrated, and absolutely not incorporated into any formulation of what is Saudi Heritage. This quote from a New York Times article in 1981, encapsulates this enduring misconception and reads as if it were published today:
“Powerful ulemas, or religious leaders, have preferred not to focus attention on the Jahiliyah… the Saudi Government banned all excavations of the pre-Islamic era – a concession, some say, to the ulemas...”
Based on this misconception, many observers assume that the current focus of Saudi’s Vision 2030 on promoting pre-Islamic sites for tourism and for appropriation into Saudi heritage will raise popular objection or at least serious concerns from Saudi citizens.
The purpose of this essay is to challenge that misconception. It would be useful to change the question from ‘How are Saudis coping with the government’s decision vis-à-vis access to pre-Islamic sites?’ to a more complicated and pertinent questions such as: ‘How has the process of heritage formation in Saudi Arabia developed in the last five decades and how has it changed under Vision 2030?`
The relationship with the past is never straightforward and evokes issues related to identity, self-image, ethnicity, among others. Heritage formation is rarely uncontested, especially in communities with a history of political violence or, such as in the case of Saudi Arabia, undergoing fundamental identity formations or deep social changes.
Moreover, there is a difference between archaeological findings and heritage: archaeological findings are not heritage, rather they become heritigised through a process. Professor David Harvey, among others, makes this clear when he explains that heritage is not simply a “physical artefact or record…” rather heritage is a an ongoing process of cultural construction, which includes ongoing appropriation, contestation, identity construction by people “according to their contemporary concerns and experiences” for the purpose of creating a narrative about the self, the community or the nation. And while this process may be linked to artifacts or locations, it is separate and distinct.
The Appropriation of pre-Islamic History Started in the 1970s
Saudi Arabia’s interest in excavating the country started a few years after the formation of the state and intensified in the 1960s and 1970s especially under the pioneering work of Saudi archaeologist Abdulrahman al-Ansari, who led one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Saudi Arabia to date: the Qaryat al-Faw. The Saudi government set up various partnerships with foreign experts who worked with Saudis to explore and map the whole country. Laws were passed to protect and preserve: efforts were forthcoming to organise conferences and exhibitions as well as build museums to present the archaeological findings to the public. The stated mission of the first museums opened in 1976 was "encouraging the scientific examination of the country's past and its communication to the citizens". The National Museum’s design presents a case of heritage formation that appropriated pre-Islamic pasts and included them in a history culminating in the construction of the Saudi state. The museum even allocated more space to pre-Islamic artefacts, signalling that these were not merely objects from the past, but objects of “national significance”. What is extremely important to note is how the pre-Islamic civilisational artefacts were divided. They are placed in two sections: the first included pre-Islamic Arabian kingdoms and the second included the era of the Jahiliyyah. This distinction is important, since Arabian kingdoms were not framed as the Jahiliyyah. Unlike what many assume, not all pre-Islamic times are considered part of the Jahiliyyah era. The latter is a unique term used only to refer to a specific time and geography, for the purpose of comparison between the chaos prior to the Prophet and the order brought about by him. Thus, from the 1970s Saudis were already being presented with a historical narrative that appropriated pre-Islamic history.
The Discussion about Madain Saleh
This is not to say that there was no religious rejection of some pre-Islamic history. Many Muslim scholars believed that places of God’s wrath should be utilised only for contemplation, and for reflection on God’s power and ability as well as on the consequence of sinning and rebelling against God’s commands. In Saudi Arabia the only place with such a quality is Hegra (Madain Saleh for locals, in Saudi Western Province). In the early 1970s, an official fatwa from the Council of Senior Ulama (the highest religious body in the country), prohibited the visitation, development or excavation of the area of Hegra as it was believed to be a place of God’s wrath against the people of the Prophet Saleh. This prohibition was based on a Hadith according to which the Prophet discourages anyone from passing such places without “crying”: remembering what happened and reflecting. Thus, the real issue was not about pre-Islamic sites per se but rather about sites of God’s wrath, which are specific, ungeneralizable sites.
The prohibition was not always taken seriously by individuals in the country, and attitudes towards it varied. A visitor to Hegra in 2006 mentions this hadith but also stresses the changing attitudes he observed towards visiting the site. Moreover, since the early 2000s there have been discussions about whether or not the site of Hegra is actually the place of wrath. Instead of going against the fatwa, some individuals started raising questions about the specific location where the wrath took place. This geographical discussion was a way to circumvent the fatwa. The discussion also highlighted the positive impact of developing this area on the people living around it as this would create jobs and generate income through tourism, thus stressing the need to be accurate about the application of the fatwa. This approach of circumventing the fatwawas appropriate before the era of Vision 2030, as it would have been difficult to argue for a more moderate interpretation of religion and to reverse the fatwa altogether. After the reform process initiated by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) there is more leaning towards letting go of literalist interpretations altogether, and adopting a more moderate view towards Islam and its traditions that makes the fatwa part of history without much effect today.
Some Saudis may still abide by the old fatwa regarding Hegra, and many others have gone beyond it and are supportive of MbS’ commitment to reforming religion in Saudi Arabia. But this fatwa is but one minor issue, in a web of issues related to the process of heritage formation in Saudi Arabia. Looking at heritage formation from a narrow prism of religious positions, or a limited binary of acceptance and opposition, distracts us from appreciating the complex process that brings together many actors with varying agendas and different beliefs. As above, the Saudi National Museum places pre-Islamic artifacts under the negative label of Al-Jahiliyyah and also has references to Quranic verses calling upon Muslims to reflect on the deeds of those who passed but are always present. But it is one thing to speak about the various Saudi historiographies of pre-Islamic times – among academics or the public – and another to speak of general public rejection or at least a generally tense relationship with pre-Islam.
Heritage Formation as a Local and Dynamic Process
Moreover, heritage formation is a historical process shaped by local contexts and needs, and it would be inaccurate to assume that communities where Islam is a core constituent of identity have similar trajectories with regards to their relationship to their pre-Islamic pasts. R. Michael Feener wrote about various reactions by Muslims, across geography and time to their respective pre-Islamic pasts: “There is no single, normative ‘Islamic’ approach to the cultural heritage of pre-Islamic civilizations”, but rather “dynamic discourses”.
What I have sensed and observed in the past few years amongst Saudis when pre-Islamic sites are discovered or exhibited is that of pride and a hope that the government does more in finding, preserving and providing access to those sites. There is even a sense of competition between the different regions in Saudi Arabia, each wanting to demonstrate the history in its own location for tourism purposes but also as a matter of pride. Saudis want their country to be perceived as a crossroads between civilisations rather than merely “an oil-rich, nearly-empty desert where Islam originated” .
 A concept meaning age of ignorance and/or uncontrolled passions, used in Islamic traditions to denote the period immediately before Prophet Mohammed. For more on the use and evolution of this concept see: Peter Webb, “Creating Arab origins: Muslim Constructions of al‐Jahiliyya and Arab History”, (PhD diss., SOAS, University of London, 2014)
 Robert Reinhold, “Uncovering Arabia's Past,” New York Times, August 23, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/23/magazine/uncovering-arabia-s-past.html
 David C. Harvey, “Heritage Pasts And Heritage Presents: Temporality, Meaning And The Scope Of Heritage Studies,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, December 2001
 Virginia Cassola, “50 Years of Antiquity and Museum Policy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (in Arabic),”, Arabic Magazine, November 27, 2019, http://www.arabicmagazine.com/arabic/articleDetails.aspx?Id=7100
 Alaa Alrawaibah, "Archaeological Site Management In The Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia: Protection Or Isolation," in Cultural Heritage in the Arabian Peninsula: Debates, Discourses and Practices, ed. Karen Exell, Trinidad Rico, (Routledge, 2017).
 Virginia Cassola, "The Saudi Arabian National Museum," in Representing the Nation: Heritage, Museums, National Narratives, and Identity in the Arab Gulf States, ed. Pamela Erskine-Loftus, Mariam Ibrahim Al-Mulla, Victoria Hightower, (London: Routledge, and Francis, 2016): 175.
 Ibid, 180.
 For a discussion of the jurisprudential arguments see:
for a discussion of the fatwa itself see: https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/168896
 Siraj Wahab, “Arabia’s Ancient Past Alive at Madain Saleh,” Arab News, June 20, 2006, https://www.arabnews.com/node/283556
 Muhammed al-Harbi, “The Council of Senior Ulama.. Did it prohibit Investment in Madain Saleh (Arabic),” Okaz, March 8, 2008, https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/168896
 Halimah Muthaffar, “Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia.. Nabataeans or Thamudic Before Investing it for Tourism… a Call for Reviewing the Fatwa of the Council of Senior Ulama on Prohibiting its Development (Arabic),” February 2, 2007, https://archive.aawsat.com/details.asp?article=404564&issueno=10293#.X1I-n4uEaUk
 David Pollock, “Unique Saudi Poll Shows Moderate Majority, But Sectarian Split,” The Washington Institute, October 03, 2017. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/unique-saudi-poll-shows-moderate-majority-but-sectarian-split
This discusses survey results from 2017 on Saudi public opinion that reported that most Saudis are aligned with the government’s policy of social reform, and a significant percentage of the population support moderate and tolerant interpretations of Islam. The results also indicate that there are many Saudis are still in line with the more traditional even fundamentalist interpretations.
 For a discussion on this see: Omer Can Aksoy, “Framing the Primordial: Islamic Heritage and Saudi Arabia,” in The Making of Islamic Heritage, ed. T. Rico, (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
 I avoided saying “in Muslim communities” as this implies that those who hold Islam as a religion are a monolithic homogenous social group, and whose other identities and affiliations are secondary.
 R. Michael Feener, “Muslim Cultures and Pre-Islamic Pasts: Changing Perceptions of ‘Heritage’,” in The Making of Islamic Heritage, ed. T. Rico, (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 23.
 Ismail Ibrahim, “Archaeological Sites in the Kingdom a Neglected National Treasure,” Al-Riyadh, November 16, 2009, http://www.alriyadh.com/474648
 Faiza Elmasry, “Saudi Arabia's Pre-Islamic History Revealed,” VOA, November 30, 2012, https://www.voanews.com/arts-culture/saudi-arabias-pre-islamic-history-revealed