The project leader, Fahd al-Semmari, arrived in the northern region of al-Jouf this month.
The remote province, about 1,200 km from the capital, Riyadh, is one of 13 governorates included in a national project to document folk tales, songs and poems before the ravages of modernisation wipe them out forever.
But independent academics are scathing about the programme, which they say has come too late and has the ulterior motive of seeking to glorify and legitimise the ruling house of Saud.
Oral tradition has remained dominant outside most population centres in Saudi Arabia despite the written culture that followed the advent of Islam more than 1,300 years ago.
“We need projects like these to stop the erosion of the memory of a country”
“In this part of the world not that much is written in history. In al-Jouf you find all kinds of people who are gifted in memory and telling stories,” project leader Semmari said.
“These ‘ruwaat’, or storytellers, are few but they are important. Their memories are strong. Everybody knows them because they are the life of any gathering, but they are decreasing heavily,” he added.
The richest mine of information is to be found in al-Jouf and nearby Ha’il, the Shia Muslim Hasa region in the Eastern Province, and the distant mountains of Jazan, which border Yemen.
“In Riyadh and Jedda, urbanisation is destroying these things. We need projects like these to stop the erosion of the memory of a country,” Semmari said, adding more than 3,200 individual histories had been gathered so far.
The information collected is being written, recorded and deposited in a specially-established documentation centre in Riyadh, the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives.
Some, however, are critical.
“It’s not free, objective historical research -digging up the past is motivated by present concerns”
“It’s all wishful thinking,” said Riyadh-based Saudi social anthropologist Saad al-Sowayan.
“It’s a serious matter and I don’t think they realise [this]. I don’t think they have the intellectual capacity to realise what it means.”
He said the loss of oral history mirrored the loss of much of the country’s physical past, caused by the iconoclastic religious culture that has dominated since the kingdom’s inception in 1932.
The Saud family used the strict form of Islam known as Wahhabism to unite most of the Arabian peninsula in the early 20th century.
But that religious ideology has little time for elements which fall outside its interpretation of Islam.
Shrines were torn down and ancient quarters built over with new construction. “This sort of interruption is not healthy, there is loss of cultural and social continuity,” al-Sowayan added.
London-based Saudi anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed said the documentation effort was merely being used to glorify the ruling family.
“All they have done so far is to fix history according to the narrative that legitimises the state,” she said.
“It’s not free, objective historical research. Digging up the past is motivated by present concerns. It’s not for its own sake.”
Oral history that talks of opposition to Saudi rule will be suppressed, Rasheed added.