HRH Prince Khalid Al-Faisal and Asir Province
Before Prince Khalid Al-Faisal’s appointment in 2007 as Governor of Makkah Province, His Royal Highness served for thirty nine years as Governor of Asir Province.
This once remote region in south-western Saudi Arabia is dominated by a mountain range which is part of the same geological fault line as Africa’s Great Rift Valley which emerges on the other side of the Red Sea.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal recalls his first impressions of the region: ‘As soon as I arrived in Asir I found many features which caused me to fall in love with the area at first sight. The people of Asir were endowed with nobility, courage, and virtue. Asir’s nature itself was captivating, with green and fertile hills and extensive thick forests, its terraced and flat plantations, its wonderful climate combining a temperate summer climate in the hills and a mild winter climate on its coastal plains. The varying colours of the clouds intermingle. They carry in their folds the summer rain as if they have an appointment to keep which they must not miss. The falling rain washes the face of the towns and villages. Its sun shines afresh producing a vision of loveliness following the rain. The wadis flow, the green vegetation sprouts up on their banks, and beautiful flowers of all colours cover their surroundings’.
Asir in the late 1960s was an impenetrable country scattered with hundreds of isolated communities, with no infrastructure. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal travelled throughout the Province meeting the people to find out their needs, and was amazed at the diversity of their culture and the beauty of the landscape.
Both, he realised, held the key to the region’s future: ‘There was nothing to develop except tourism’, he said. ‘It was the only thing I had to work with. You could see the potential all around you. It was tremendous. I thought then that we had to preserve the essence of Asir, develop the services and facilities, and attract outsiders. People laughed at me when I suggested developing tourism, but now tourism potential is all everyone seems to be talking about. We have millions of pilgrims and people visiting the Holy Places of Makkah and Medina every year. My job was to encourage them to stay longer and visit other parts of the Kingdom. There is so much for them to experience. Asir is one of the regions now taking tourists from abroad. We had been planning this for years and now have the infrastructure and I have no doubt it will succeed’.
Abha, the capital of the Province, has now been developed into a popular weekend and summer resort for Saudis wishing to escape the heat of the interior, with state-of-the-art hotels, scenic villas and one of the largest conference centres in the Middle East situated in the picturesque mountains of Al-Soudah.
Among the other achievements during His Royal Highness’s time as Governor included the construction of over 425 kilometres of roads which link the high plateaux to the lowlands, as well as 580 bridges and 172 tunnels.
In 1981, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal also established the first and only national park in Saudi Arabia. Today the Asir National Park which consists of 450,000 hectares stretches from the Red Sea, in the west, to the desert, in the east. Al-Gurrah, to the south-east of Abha, is a typical area of the park. Popular with city dwellers for early evening picnics, spectacular scenery, and vivid sunsets, there are strict conservation measures enforced to preserve the ecology, prevent exploitation or damage to the site, and maintain it in its natural state. It is an offence to cut down a tree, and no planting of non-indigenous species is permitted.
When Prince Khalid Al-Faisal first visited Habalah, a traditional farming village clinging to a high cliff face above terraced fields and a broad valley, he arrived by helicopter as there was no access by road. For centuries, the village was cut off from the rest of the world; supplies and visitors had to be lowered by rope 300 meters from the plateau above.
The villagers told Prince Khalid Al-Faisal that they needed electricity, a school, medical facilities, and other services, but it was not possible to provide these to such a precarious site. So, in 1979, he had the King Faisal Village built at Wadiayn nearby, providing 60 houses for the villagers. The ‘Hanging Village’, however, was kept intact and is now one of Asir’s most popular tourist attractions, reached by a 600 metre cable car trip. Some of the villagers now work at the site, and are able to tell visitors about the extraordinary way of life in the past.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal as Governor, encouraged people to retain the distinct character of their community as it underwent the modernisation process. The Khairat Al-Faisal Village, for example, in the Hareeda region of the Tihama plains to the south, was completed in 1998 as part of a project to bring socio-economic development to the area. Roads, water, power, and communications were all improved, and 100 homes were built and paid for by the King Faisal Foundation. The new village includes schools, mosques, shops, a central market, health care centre, and district and municipal offices. The villagers have held firmly to their particular traditions and customs.
Awareness of the different strands of the region’s culture have been fostered throughout Asir by attractions such as the Dhafir bin Hamsan Tradition Village at Kahmis Mushayt, about 25 kilometers east of Abha. The visitor can find out about the different types of houses in Asir: stone in the mountains, stone and clay in Abha, mud houses on the plains, wooden huts in the valleys, and Bedouin tents in the desert. The colourful interiors, decorative textiles, and crafts, and the traditional music and dance owe little to the influence of Islamic design. Here is a region that over centuries has developed its own unique vernacular culture, with many subtle variations.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal also ensured that Asir featured prominently in the Al-Janadiriya Festival in Riyadh, one of the largest celebrations of Arab culture in the world. A fixture of the festival is the Asir Heritage Village. He says: ‘Visitors to the Festival express an interest in learning about the cultures of different people, and enjoy the display of the history of regional architecture and the appropriateness of architectural styles for the environment and climate which are so evident in Asir. In this way visitors are presented with a comprehensive statement of the history, geography, social activity, culture, and originality of the region’.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal also worked hard in Asir to create the right conditions and atmosphere for artists, poets, writers, composers, and musicians to flourish. In the regional capital, he established the Literary Club of Abha, the Abha Singing Festival, the Abha Prize (including a major award for cultural excellence), and the Al-Miftaha Visual Arts Village, situated in an ancient quarter of the city. This includes artists’ studios and accommodation (free of charge), exhibition galleries, shops, and a bookstore. There is also a modern theatre, one of the first in Saudi Arabia which seats 3000 spectators for performances of music, singing, and poetry.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal also led by his own example as a poet. Characteristically, he continues to write colloquial or folk poetry, known as Nabati poetry, rather than classical. It is the vernacular poetry of the people and his poems express deep personal feelings towards those close to him, as well as to the people and the Province he once governed:
They said, will you travel? No more travel, said I Some people like travel, I like other things They said, where’s your summer? The best place, said I My summer’s Abha, home of the good and high I warm to the dance of its clouds when they fly And when the breeze blows and the bird sings ( They Said )
Historically, in the Arabian Peninsula, poetry has been one of the most important art forms. The poet is still valued today as spokesman in Arab society whose work comments on and commemorates events.
The poem is the ‘witness’ and the history of the Arabs is held in their poetry. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal values this heritage enormously and continues the tradition himself. He has written several songs under the nom de plume Da’im Al-Saif. In 1994, he wrote the Opera of Unification for the opening of the Al-Janadiriya Festival in Riyadh, and recently wrote The Song of Glory on the occasion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ‘s centenary. Many books of his poetry have been published since 1985, and a selection from them, Poems by Khalid Al-Faisal was published in Arabic and English in 1996. His public readings of ancient Arab poetry and his own poems continue to draw large crowds.