“[What] we have learned in isolation is the importance of being rooted, not only in our country or our region, but also in our home, whose corners we almost forgot because of the speed of life around us” – Ahmed Al Mulla
We often associate culture with looking back: to the works of long-dead poets, old masters, traditional music and dance. For instance, In Saudi Arabia, the Jenadriyah Heritage and Cultural Festival celebrates the heritage of the region.
But culture is about so much more than celebrating the past. It is also about looking forward, welcoming change and embracing the future. And that is as true in Saudi Arabia as it is anywhere.
A vision for culture
The kingdom has a very strong vision for culture. In fact, culture is a central part of Saudi plans for the future. In its Vision 2030 programme, there are plans to boost the participation of citizens and residents in cultural activities. And culture is defined widely. It isn’t just music and poetry. The Saudi Ministry of Culture has expanded its role to embrace 16 different cultural forms including film, fashion and the culinary arts.
There are practical reasons for this growing emphasis on culture. It’s an important part of developing a fulfilling way of life, of course. But it is also a way of growing the economy, which is important as Saudi Arabia diversifies away from oil production. And just as importantly, culture is a medium for international exchange, a way of developing the kingdom’s relationships with the rest of the world.
As Saudi Arabia integrates more closely with other nations, it is also embracing some of the norms that many other nations follow. This is shown in the increasing diversity of arts and culture leadership: for example, Dr Amal Fatani has been appointed cultural attaché to the United Kingdom (one of three women in this role), while Dr Zainab Al-Khudairi is head of the kingdom’s cultural programme.
Alongside these changes comes a considerable investment in culture. There is, of course, Ithra, a beacon of change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a window on global cultures for its citizens. Open since 2018 and housed in an inspiring building, Ithra (more formally the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture) is a space that aims to provide transformative experiences that unlock people’s potential through culture and innovation.
Ithra is a major investment. It is not just a building. It is a continuous collection of programmes designed to fuel creativity, inspiration and a passion for lifelong learning. Educational workshops are side by side with culinary experiences, film screenings, museums and performance art. By offering this rich cultural mix, Ithra provides Saudi Arabia with a vigorous source of potential, equipping citizens with knowledge and stimulating curiosity.
The organisation’s mission, as described by Ithra’s director Hussain Hanbazazah, is simple: “to enrich culture, art, and society”. By celebrating innovation and traditional culture together, Ithra is helping the kingdom preserve the best of its past while at the same time moving towards its new tomorrow.
Another major cultural investment is the Diriyah mega project, a development intended to preserve and celebrate the 18th century home of the rulers of Saudi Arabia and turn the iconic landmark of Diriyah into a global gathering place.
These and other investments demonstrate the determination of Saudis to strengthen and share their cultural achievements.
The pandemic and culture in the Arab world
The cultural scene in the Arab world is a lively one. Indeed, as Saudi film director Ali Alsumayin said, “Before the pandemic we were living in a cultural and creative boom, especially in the kingdom.”
And then the world was hit by Covid-19. Inevitably this had a major effect on creative endeavours around the world. Saudi Arabia was no exception. In a research report written for Ithra, Art, Culture and Covid-19: The Expert View, two major impacts of the pandemic on cultural life were identified.
First, the pandemic obliterated traditional routes for raising revenue for artists, museums and many other parts of the cultural ecosystem. Theatres and festivals, where people paid to gather together, were particularly badly hit.
And second, certain types of artistic activity became impossible. Filmmaking, for instance, was halted, ironically at a time when the desire to watch films online grew among people trapped at home.
However, the news was not all bad. Commercial opportunities for selling cultural artefacts such as artworks and jewellery still exist online, and indeed have been growing as people look to spend money in new ways. In fact, despite the pandemic, cultural progress in Saudi Arabia has been maintained, and in some areas even accelerated.
Positive effects of the pandemic
Among the many positives resulting from the pandemic in Saudi Arabia, one of the most important is increased creativity. Denied traditional outlets, artists have been forced to find new ways of working. According to Maya El Khalil, one-time director of the Athr Contemporary Art Gallery in Jeddah, “Artists will continue to find innovative ways to communicate, to reach out, to explore and to express.”
And so it has proved, with online media in particular offering new ways of sharing, explaining and exploring culture. For instance, Ithra’s director Hussain Hanbazazah describes how, because of the physical shutdown caused by the pandemic “We curated programs not based on one-way communication, but by reaching out to the public to co-create the content.”
The focus of artists has changed as well. Forced to stay at home, often isolated, artists have been pushed to greater introspection. Basma Al-Shathry, curator at the Misk Art Institute, has noticed something rather beautiful. “Artists have been using their personal stories for their work, where they delve into their own memories and streams,” she says. The poet and filmmaker Ahmed Al Mulla adds another significant point: “The other thing that we have learned in isolation is the importance of being rooted, not only in our country or our region, but also in our home, whose corners we almost forgot because of the speed of life around us.”
It’s important to also remember that isolation doesn’t have to mean a lack of collaboration. Just as businesspeople and teachers are getting used to sharing ideas over Zoom calls, so artists are using online technology to work together. As collaboration and co-operation become more important to individual artists who are physically isolated, so innovation and creativity increase. It seems that even the loneliness of locked-down societies can have cultural benefits.
Another, perhaps unexpected, benefit has been the degree to which the move online has increased audiences. Ithra’s Hussain Hanbazazah explains: “We have much wider audiences than we previously realized. An example is our Sci-nights, which usually attract between 30 and 35 attendees. Our first online session attracted 250 attendees. Over the course of the lockdown, we engaged with over 30,000 people from 75 countries around the world.” Ithra has learned from this and has reopened with a combination of physical and online programmes.
Furthermore, as we slowly come out of lockdown, there are also benefits for consumers of art and culture. The physical experience of art is important: visiting galleries and museums, seeing and even handling cultural artefacts that are grouped with others to provide context and contrast – these are essential parts of engaging with culture. And in the short term at least, the physical distancing required to manage the pandemic means less crowded galleries, sometimes with pre-planned paths that visitors can follow – discovering things they might otherwise miss.
The future of culture in the kingdom
The future for arts and culture in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly positive, despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic. We have already seen technology being used to support art in new ways – virtual museum tours and “distributed” choirs performing online, for example. As well as providing new experiences, this technology also brings new audiences for arts and culture, people who previously would have been unable to visit galleries and theatres.
We are seeing a rethinking of the role of museums in the Arab world. The curator Maya El Khalil poses an important question when she asks, “What does it mean to hold a universal collection when people cannot access it? Perhaps it’s time to start talking about collections, about the presence of local audiences and their engagement with art and even about distributing the power of the museum across multiple museums around the world.”
The localisation of culture, with local people and visitors to a local area, able to engage with artefacts that are particularly relevant to them, would be powerful. Especially so if combined with wider regional, national and international experiences, perhaps delivered online.
We are also seeing new cultural experiences emerge. The use of digital technology to create artefacts that people can interact with or that respond to a changing environment opens up many new opportunities for experimental and traditional Saudi artists.
The government of Saudi Arabia has shown a strong determination to support arts and culture in the kingdom. As the world evolves, Saudi Arabia is transforming at an even greater pace. Culture is central to that change.