Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June-July 2012, Page 37

Special Report

Saudi Arabia Welcomes Expats and Others Returning Cherished Antiquities

By Robert L. Ackerman

Photos Courtesy Julia Glenister and Margaret AckermanThe author (l) with Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman at the International Symposium on the Retrieval of National Antiquities. (Photos Courtesy Julia Glenister and Margaret Ackerman)

I was recently invited by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) to attend the International Symposium on the Retrieval of National Antiquities and Exhibition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. For years I had wanted to return several artifacts that I had found in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when I worked there for Saudi Aramco from 1960 to 1975. Then in mid-January I read an article posted by Arthur Clark, editor of Al-Ayyam al-Jamilah and assistant editor of Saudi Aramco World, about the launch of an antiquities homecoming project.

My wife, Margaret, and I rushed to send photos and a description of my archeological find for consideration as a "significant" heritage artifact. The SCTA responded with an invitation to travel to Riyadh to attend a special exhibition of returned artifacts, as well as a conference on the repatriation of artifacts to Saudi Arabia, and a ceremony of thanks. The SCTA provided air travel on Saudi Arabian Airlines and accommodation for my daughter, Julia Glenister, who accompanied me on this trip.

Photos Courtesy Julia Glenister and Margaret AckermanThe three Iron Age pots uncovered in 1972.

In all, the SCTA invited 23 expatriates to attend the six-day program, which included special ceremonies and meetings with the SCTA's President HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman and, for the women in our group, a private meeting with the chair of the consultation committee at the National Museum, HRH Princess Adela bint Abdullah. Following symposium sessions featuring speakers from Interpol and UNESCO,we were flown to the archeological burial site of the Nabatean civilization in Mada'in Saleh in the Western Madinah Province and later to Dhahran, in the Eastern Province, for a reception with officials at the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco). There were additional trips to the World Heritage site of Al-Dir'eia and to the Saudi annual National Heritage Festival in Janadriyah, near Riyadh.

I must admit that I found all of this somewhat overwhelming, because I had not been back to the Kingdom, where I had worked as an engineer in the Ras Tanura refinery, and later in Dhahran, for nearly four decades. My memories of this country, which became our home and made an indelible stamp on our lives, date back to when Margaret and I first arrived in 1960. Neither of us will ever forget that hot blast of air as we exited one of Aramco's planes to walk across the tarmac into the old Dhahran Airfield's non-air- conditioned shed carrying our infant daughter, Julia. Later our daughter Janet would be born in Dhahran, and our son, Robert, would join us.

It was in 1972, on a picnic with friends, that I discovered a collection of nine handmade clay pots just under the desert surface near the base of an old "Turkish watchtower" at Jubail on the Arabian Gulf. They were arranged as a ring of smaller pots (6-1/2 inch diameter) with a larger pot in the center. All were buried upside down and packed with sand. Digging with my hands, I was able to recover, intact, three of the smaller pots. Coincidentally, I had previously read Geoffrey Bibby's Looking For Dilmun, in which he describes finding buried pots that contained a snake skeleton during his archeological work on Bahrain Island. I found no such skeleton.

When we departed Saudi Arabia, I included the three pots with my personal items for shipment back to the United States. At that time the Kingdom did not have a national museum nor any government provision for the safekeeping of ancient artifacts. In fact, it was not until 1999 that the world-class National Museum in Riyadh was established. This is where my pots will be analyzed and dated by archeologists, and hopefully displayed along with hundreds of other artifacts returned by former Aramco expatriates and Saudi nationals in recent years.

The change that struck me the most upon my return after 37 years is the world-class architecture, punctuated by the Kingdom Tower and the Al Faisaliyah Center, towering over the construction of major roads, buildings and airports. Everywhere one turns in Riyadh there are cranes and construction crews. Perhaps most remarkably, the modernization of Saudi Arabia is not limited to its infrastructure. I was especially pleased, and I must admit surprised, to read in the Feb. 12, 2012 Arab News an op-ed written by attorney Qaisar Hamed Metawea entitled "Time for Kingdom to enact an anti-discrimination law." Noting that discrimination exists in Saudi Arabia, Metawea noted that women and foreigners in particular are targets for discrimination. Editorial freedom is another sign that Saudi Arabia is experiencing steady, multi-faceted progress.

I would like to thank Prince Sultan for inviting my daughter, my fellow honorees and myself to Saudi Arabia. I would also like to publicly thank the SCTA—especially Jamal S. Omar and his hard-working team—Saudi Aramco and Arthur Clark for their well-planned program and for the generosity these organizations extended to those of us returning artifacts that we have cherished over the years. It has been a fascinating journey, and one that appears to have only just begun, for Saudi Arabia as it honors and chronicles its rich heritage. 

Robert L. Ackerman was employed as a chemical engineer for 17 years by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in New York and Saudi Arabia. In the mid-1970s he spent two years in Ahwaz, with the Pahlavi-era Oil Service Company of Iran before joining Bechtel where he was based in England, Borneo and Papua New Guinea through the early 1980s.