(MENAFN - Arab News) JEDDAH, 2 May 2007 — Saudi Arabia is replete with archaeological sites dating back to thousands of years, according to Dr. Mohammed Al-Ruwaished, deputy minister of education for antiquities and museums.
"There are nearly 100,000 historical sites in the Kingdom and we have already identified and registered 3,700 main sites. Some of these have 80 to 100 related sites in different localities," Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper quoted Ruwaished as saying.
The deputy minister disclosed that the Kingdom retrieved 1,600 rare Islamic coins that were in the process of being smuggled out from the Shuaiba port recently. He commended the customs department for its role in preventing the smuggling of many valuable artifacts from the country.
Ruwaished said the Agency for Antiquities and Museums, which is under the Ministry of Education, would be merged with the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) in two months. The SCT wants to make use of the Kingdom's museums and historical sites to promote tourism.
Prince Sultan ibn Salman, secretary-general of the SCT, has highlighted Saudi Arabia's tourism prospects in the heritage sector.
"We have a large tourism market, especially in the areas of heritage and culture. Saudi Arabia is a first-class heritage state as there are thousands of antiquities and we have unearthed only a limited number of them. The Kingdom's geographical position has made it a crossroads of civilizations," Sultan said.
Ruwaished said his ministry has licensed 19 museums across the country, adding that 11 of them had received approval from the Higher Council for Antiquities.
Two new museums have been opened in Baha and Hail as part of a national plan to set up a museum in each of the Kingdom's 13 regions. In addition to the National Museum in Riyadh, several historical buildings have been renovated and converted into museums in Jeddah, Taif, Hofuf and other areas.
The Kingdom's historical sites and museums will attract a large number of foreign tourists. The SCT chief has said that Saudi Arabia wants to attract 1.5 million tourists a year by 2020, excluding the millions who come on Haj and Umrah pilgrimages. He spoke of the ambitious goal of making tourism to account for 18 percent of the country's gross domestic product by 2020.
Ruwaished said the Kingdom had returned some stolen artifacts to their original foreign sources. "The coordination with the Interior Ministry, the customs and other related agencies were instrumental in preventing smuggling of valuable artifacts and antiquities in and out of the country," he pointed out.
Saudi Arabia is a signatory of an international agreement on protecting cultural properties," Ruwaished said. "We will not allow circulation of any antiques without permission from the country of its origin," he said.