Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s most formidable regional powers, has no shortage of allies. From the United Arab Emirates to the United States, the kingdom’s partners guarantee Saudi economic, military, and political hegemony on the Arabian Peninsula. In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia has begun cultivating a far different kind of alliance with an unlikely collaborator: Greece. The two countries, separated by culture and geography but united in their passion for ancient history, intend to explore the secrets of Saudi Arabia’s past together.
In late May, Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud embarked on a two-day visit to Greece. Together with Saudi General Supervisor of Cultural Affairs and International Relations Rakan al-Touq and Saudi Ambassador to Greece Saad bin Abdulrahman al-Ammar, Prince Badr met Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou to discuss prospects for cooperation between the Saudi Culture Ministry and its Greek counterpart.
The discussions between Greek and Saudi officials yielded substantial results. Soon after the meetings, Prince Badr and Greek Culture and Sports Minister Lina Mendoni announced that their countries planned to conclude a memorandum of understanding that would incorporate what the Saudi news service Al Arabiya called “the exchange of cultural goods, services and skills” into trade between Greece and Saudi Arabia. The agreement, which the two countries will sign later this year, also calls for efforts to protect heritage assets and stop smuggling.
The two countries aim to celebrate their history by coordinating art exhibitions and festivals through joint “cultural weeks.”
In addition to commerce and cultural heritage, the memorandum of understanding covers cooperation between Greece and Saudi Arabia on some more immediate projects. The two countries aim to celebrate their history by coordinating art exhibitions and festivals through joint “cultural weeks.” Saudi Arabia is also seeking the assistance of Greek archeologists to excavate Qaryat al-Faw, one of the most significant pre-Islamic historic sites in the Arab world.
Qaryat al-Faw’s founders remain unknown, but the archaeological record suggests that they built the city before 300 BC. The historic site is located 400 miles southwest of the Saudi city of Riyadh and served as the capital of Kindah, an Arab kingdom that dominated the area around the Rub’ al Khali in the third and fourth centuries. The city also functioned as a trading post on the route carrying frankincense from Yemen to Persia, where the Sassanian Empire plotted against its Roman and Byzantine rivals before the rise of Islam in the seventh century.
With good reason, the Saudi Tourism Ministry declares Qaryat al-Faw “to be one of the most important archeological sites across the Arabian Peninsula if not in the whole world, because it represents a vivid example of an Arab city before Islam, which exhibits various features such as houses, roads, markets, cemeteries and water wells, temples, etc.” Among other cultural treasures, the city hosts temples to the pantheon of gods worshipped by pre-Islamic Arab tribes.
Archeologists’ excitement over Qaryat al-Faw, now shared by Saudi officials, stems in part from the recency of the city’s discovery. Scholars determined the locations of pre-Islamic Saudi historic sites such as Hegra and Tayma over a hundred years ago. The Saudi archeologist and professor Abdulrahman al-Ansary, though, only started the excavation of Qaryat al-Faw in 1971 with the support of Riyadh University, now called King Saud University. The uncovered artifacts, among them a series of paintings, redefined understandings of pre-Islamic Arab art.
Like archeologists, linguists herald the significance of Qaryat al-Faw. The initial excavation of the historic site revealed a first-century epigraph that scholars deemed the earliest Arabic text written in South Arabian script, also known as “musnad script.” Qaryat al-Faw also contained inscriptions in the languages of Lihyan and Nabatea, two pre-Islamic Arab kingdoms.
Scholars of the Arab world’s pre-Islamic past will likely welcome Greek and Saudi collaboration on the development of Qaryat al-Faw, one of a few well-received cultural initiatives that Saudi Arabia has launched under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the kingdom’s controversial de facto leader.
The Saudi Culture Ministry, itself a creation of Prince Mohammed, has spearheaded initiatives that garnered Prince Mohammad praise. In 2018, the government agency oversaw the opening of Saudi movie theaters for the first time in a generation, with headlines such as “Black Panther Will Be the First Film Shown in Saudi Arabian Cinemas in 35 Years.” A year later, the Saudi Culture Ministry outlined plans to establish two academies dedicated to art and music as part of its “Quality of Life” initiative. The ultimate evolution of Qaryat al-Faw into a tourist attraction may bring the Kingdom more positive press still.
Whether intentional or not, Saudi Arabia’s partnership with Greece on the development of Qaryat al-Faw may help Prince Mohammed realize two parallel goals: repairing his battered image overseas and reintegrating the kingdom into the international community. The Crown Prince has imprisoned and tortured advocates for women’s rights, dissident clerics, fellow royals, and other perceived critics and rivals.
In 2015, he also ordered and still oversees the ongoing Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has resulted in an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from lack of food, health services, and infrastructure.
Finally, the 2018 assassination and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, sanctioned by Prince Mohammed and orchestrated by his deputies, led Western countries to distance themselves from the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia as a whole.
As Greece’s cultural engagement with Saudi Arabia takes shape, Greek officials will also have to balance competing priorities.
However, as Greece’s cultural engagement with Saudi Arabia takes shape, Greek officials will also have to balance competing priorities. On the one hand, Greece will want to avoid the perception that it is enabling the many disturbing aspects of Prince Mohammed’s domestic and foreign policies. On the other, Saudis and scholars alike will benefit from the full development of Qaryat al-Faw, a project to which Greek archeologists can contribute unique, vital expertise.
As the pandemic recedes in Europe and the Middle East, officials and scholars will have greater opportunities to travel between Greece and Saudi Arabia. Only then will the future of Qaryat al-Faw and its role in the relationship between the two countries become clear. Even so, it seems apparent that Greece and Saudi Arabia share a growing interest in ancient civilizations.