Promoting Saudi art and culture is central to modernisation drive

Recent developments show that the Saudi Arabia of 2017 is not the Saudi Arabia of 30 years ago.
Sunday 04/03/2018
Members of circus troupe “Cirque Eloize” perform their show organised by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority in Riyadh, on January 18.               (Reuters)
Another side of reform. Members of circus troupe “Cirque Eloize” perform their show organised by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority in Riyadh, on January 18. (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia has always had its own writers, artists, directors, actors and musicians but for many years their talent was unwelcome in the kingdom. While Saudi artists gained critical acclaim in many Western and Arab capitals, their work went largely unrecognised in their own country.

This paradox was due to restrictive policies on art and entertainment in Saudi Arabia, which were justified — wrongly — on religious grounds. Such policies did not reflect the values of Saudi society and cut against its tradition of creativity and aesthetic sensitivity as well as its significant cultural contributions, particularly in Nabati poetry, which has been a feature of life in the Arabian Peninsula since the 16th century.

Even while art did not find the ideal environment to thrive in the kingdom, it never disappeared. Various Saudi artists gained international acclaim for their work in recent years, including director Ali Kalthami, director Mahmoud Sabbagh, film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour, contemporary artist Manal al-Dowayan, designer Samiah Khashoggi and visual artist Hend al-Mansour.

These artists, as well as younger aspiring talents, are likely to shine in the coming years.

This is because of a gentle breeze of change that has swept through the kingdom with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s Vision 2030, a daring national agenda aimed at modernising the kingdom and diversifying the economy. Its goal is to free the kingdom from dependence on oil exports and build a prosperous and sustainable economic future.

The far-reaching project has already begun. Saudi Arabia has announced it will invest $64 billion over the next ten years in its entertainment industry, a move that was received warmly by international investors.

Earlier, British cinema operator Vue International and the Kuwait National Cinema Company both announced they would open cinema multiplexes in Saudi Arabia before the end of this year. Construction on the kingdom’s first opera house is to begin soon.

The kingdom is also to have 5,000 entertainment events this year, including musicals, stand-up comedy performances and other live shows from some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Cirque du Soleil, said the chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority (GEA), Ahmed bin Aqeel al-Khatib.

He said 500 companies had registered to organise entertainment events in one year.

Faisal Bafarat, CEO of the GEA, added that 2018 entertainment programmes would create 224,000 jobs, including 114,000 direct and 110,000 indirect jobs in the sector by 2030.

“Families, young people and children will be able to enjoy live music performances, theatre shows, musicals, circus performances, community festivals and much more across the kingdom,” Bafarat said.

These statements send a clear message to investors that opportunities are available in Saudi entertainment and that the GEA is willing to support investors who expand their business.

The development of this emerging sector will produce many jobs in the long term, as well as create an indirect economic return by expanding investment opportunities and encouraging spending on local entertainment products.

The $64 billion that is projected to be earned in the Saudi entertainment industry may sound astronomical to some but it is a small sum in the global entertainment market. Professional service firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2015-2019” report stated that global spending on entertainment and media was expected to increase from $1.74 trillion in 2014 to $2.23 trillion in 2019. In the United States, the world’s largest entertainment and media market, spending will reach $723 billion in 2019, up from $568 billion in 2014.

Saudi Arabia’s expected $64 billion, most of which is likely to be reinvested in infrastructure for the industry, is a small fraction of this number — 0.4% of global expenditure.

Recent developments show that the Saudi Arabia of 2017 is not the Saudi Arabia of 30 years ago. Indeed, the kingdom is changing and, little by little, progress will be made in harmony with existing traditions.

Such changes should include increased cooperation with Western and regional partners and efforts to strengthen cross-cultural dialogue to further develop various sectors of the Saudi economy.

Unfortunately, however, developments in Saudi Arabia have been largely overshadowed by the many conflicts in the wider Arab region and the threat of radical groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Houthi militia in Yemen.

For Saudi Arabia, the best way to counter such threats is to serve as a counter-narrative and model a peaceful society in which freedom and dignity are respected.

To this end, Saudis should reject false interpretations of religion that could be used by extremists to jeopardise the kingdom’s agenda and they should continue on the path of progress, innovation and cultural expression — values that will help ensure the kingdom’s success long down the road.