Saudi reforms continue with new Culture Ministry

The government reshuffle will likely see the kingdom develop soft power and influence away from the traditional religious establishment.
Sunday 10/06/2018
New opportunities. A Saudi woman aims a camera as she studies film-making at a university in Jeddah.      		                    (Reuters)
New opportunities. A Saudi woman aims a camera as she studies film-making at a university in Jeddah. (Reuters)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia, associated with exporting and nurturing Salafi Islamic doctrine, is opening its doors to the world with an emphasis on culture and tolerance.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a royal decree forming a Ministry of Culture tasked with turning the kingdom into a regional cultural hub, in line with its Vision 2030 reform programme.

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Farhan, 33, was appointed minister of culture.

Saudi state news agency SPA reported the royal order included making the Ministry of Culture and Information two separate ministries and the establishment of the Historical Old Jeddah project, which would report to the Ministry of Culture with an independent budget.

“Culture has a ministry… finally,” wrote journalist Hala al-Qahani on her Twitter account. Saudi TV presenter Waleed al-Farraj also tweeted in support of the new ministry, saying he hoped it would “ignite the creativity of citizens in the literature and the fine arts from painting and sculpture to the theatre, music and cinema.”

“It has been a long-awaited dream,” Mubarak al-Atty, a writer and media analyst said in an interview on Rotana TV. He said the ministry has the daunting task of kick-starting Saudi Arabia’s cultural efforts.

Members of the kingdom’s religious establishment, many known for an aversion to the arts, showed support for the new ministry. Well-known cleric Ayed al-Qarni asked that God “bless and help” the new minister.

Prince Badr has been chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a media conglomerate that includes the widely circulated pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat. He served as governor of the Royal Commission of Al-Ula in Al Madinah province in north-western Saudi Arabia and home to the Mada’in Saleh archaeological site. Al Arabiya said the commission was to develop the heritage and cultural sector of the area.

He was also on the board of directors of the General Authority for Culture and the CEO of the Misk Institute for Arts, a wing of the crown prince’s Misk Foundation tasked with enabling international cultural diplomacy and art exchange.

“The mission of this ministry is to cater towards culture in all its fields. Culture is part of the soft power which we hope to cultivate in service to country and national identity,” Prince Badr told Al Arabiya.

“Our vision is, without a doubt, part of the Saudi Vision 2030 and the ministry will be the main sponsor for all the advancement of culture in various fields, enhancing the Saudi and urban identities.

“Our doors are open to all, especially for the intellectuals who play a significant role. This is their ministry. We will seek to support and encourage them and continue to innovate and back their efforts.”

The kingdom has undergone unprecedented change in the last year, including the reversal of the female driving ban, the opening of cinemas for the first time in more than three decades and the creation of a national opera.

One of the main pillars of Vision 2030 is the improvement in the quality of life of Saudi citizens, who have complained of a lack of recreational options.

“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is spearheading the drive for change in the kingdom, said last October. “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe.”

The government reshuffle and the announcement of a Ministry of Culture will likely see the kingdom develop soft power and influence away from the traditional religious establishment.

Saudi Arabia launched its first full-service production studio in April. Nebras Films is to produce feature films, documentaries, TV programmes, as well as post-production work and 3D animation.

The kingdom’s General Culture Authority in March inaugurated the Saudi Film Council, which is to develop a film industry. The council is to support budding Saudi film-makers with scholarships, training programmes and workshops.