Recent investments made in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s culture sector are turning an independent arts scene into a national attraction. Donya Abdulhadi and Liza Eliano report for the Brunswick Review.
In the northwest of Saudi Arabia, at the crossroads of what was once The Silk Road and The Incense Route, stands an ancient oasis that until recently was relatively unknown outside of the Arabian Peninsula yet holds profound historical and archaeological significance. While its extraordinary rock formations are reminiscent of the famous Petra in Jordan, the walls of this ancient city date back centuries before Petra was even founded. This is AlUla, home to the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Nabatean city of Hegra, dating as far back as the first century BCE. An area nearly the size of Belgium, AlUla today is a vast historical zone and cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s cultural transformation.
Last year, just before the pandemic struck, AlUla hosted Desert X, a contemporary art exhibition usually held in the Coachella Valley in Southern California. Desert X is only a drop in the bucket of what is in store. Plans for AlUla include an open-air museum and a subterranean resort designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. With the recent launch of Riyadh’s annual Noor Festival, and upcoming Ad-Diriyah Biennale in 2021, there are many ambitious plans under way to transform some of the nation’s historic sites into major culture and tourism destinations. These include the restoration of the ancient Diriyah, home to the Al Turaif UNESCO World Heritage site, which will feature a range of culture, entertainment, retail and food venues, as well as the restoration of the ancient city of Jeddah, and the development of new districts such as Hayy Jameel, JAX and many others.
The revitalization of Saudi Arabia’s culture sector, marked by the launch of the Ministry of Culture in 2018 and described at length in the Kingdom’s 2019 Culture Report, builds on the rise of grassroots artists movement that has been under way for years. The recent government support is based on the idea of culture as a way of life, a contributor to economic growth and an opportunity for international exchange. The Ministry oversees the regulation, development and promotion of 16 cultural sub-sectors—including film, museums, heritage, fashion, music, architecture and design—and houses 11 independent commissions under its umbrella.
We spoke with several leading private and public sector voices from Saudi’s culture, creative and tourism industries, including artists themselves, to learn more about how this broad and growing cultural awakening is perceived in the country.