With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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Since the initial announcement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic and social reform plan, Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has undergone a transformation in cultural public display, drastically changing the landscape of art and entertainment. As the country’s entertainment sphere changes at such a rapid pace, the kingdom has tried to establish supporting infrastructure.
The focus on increasing the kingdom’s cultural expansion has been a top-down approach, like much of Mohammed bin Salman’s vision. New authorities, the General Entertainment Authority and General Cultural Authority, were established through royal decree on May 7, 2016. These were joined by the Ministry of Culture created in 2018, which itself will launch 11 specialized agencies encompassing music, museums, and performance arts. Saudi Arabia has also integrated previously independent organizations and individuals into the government structure and utilized a quasi-government model (operating between the private and government sectors) to further the entertainment agenda. The budding Saudi arts and cultural sector has been brought under formal control and institutionalized to support the broader socioeconomic transformation outlined in Vision 2030.
Music and Entertainment
One of the most obvious areas of change in the kingdom has been the opening of public music and performances. The government has sponsored concerts throughout the country, in Riyadh, Jeddah, al-Ula, and also more traditionally conservative areas such as Abha and Qassim, many of which have been sold out. The government initiative to open access to public performances is not merely an attempt to foster homegrown talent but primarily to expand public access to entertainment, which is very popular with the crown prince’s target demographic, young Saudis, especially urban youth, many of whom have studied abroad.
Large concerts are sponsored by the General Entertainment Authority or General Cultural Authority and sometimes have additional sponsors such as Rotana, the Arab world’s largest record label. Warner Music has sought a stake in Dubai-based Rotana, which carries some of the most popular Saudi artists. Rotana is primarily owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and operates as a private company with close ties to the government. Saudi Arabia has also had an informal music industry, with music genres such as shailat, Hijazi rap, and others recorded and produced locally. While there has been talk about the establishment of a music institute in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom still lacks a formal avenue for music education. Many of the local khaleeji and Arab artists performing in Saudi Arabia today have been performing outside of the kingdom for decades, as well as in the privacy of the homes of elites and at weddings inside Saudi Arabia.
The government sponsorship of concerts has brought popular music to more traditionally conservative areas such as Qassim; due to the official stamp of approval, there has been little backlash. A recent concert with Saudi singers Mohammed Abdu and Khalid Abdulrahman in Qassim was sold out, showing that there is a socially liberal constituency even in the most conservative areas, particularly among youth.
The government has been strategic in the type of entertainment presented in different areas, understanding the range of traditional and conservative views. Saudi Arabia regularly hosts popular Arab and khaleeji singers throughout the country, such as Abdul Majeed Abdallah and Assala Nasri, in areas outside of the main metropolitan centers. However, for special events, primarily in urban areas, the government has also brought in popular Western artists. Events such as Jeddah Season, Winter at Tantora, and Formula E in Ad Diriyah have featured a variety of international artists. Including rapper 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, and popular K-pop artists, the government has aimed to appeal to a wide audience for these events, including those willing to travel from elsewhere in the region to attend. In some cases, the government has actually commissioned international and Arab social media influencers to showcase the events on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social media outlets.
Some international musicians, such as rapper Nicki Minaj, who have announced performances in Saudi Arabia, have received criticism from international human rights groups, leading some to be cautious about publicizing or posting videos of their concerts on social media. However other performers, such as DJ Marshmello and rappers Rick Ross and 50 Cent, have boasted about their love for the Saudi people. The government-led opening of a public music scene in the kingdom has allowed for rapid growth, with limited public resistance. However, as this has been primarily a top-down initiative, the future of a music scene independent of the government, with foreign investment and buy in, is less clear.
Domestically, there have been some concerns regarding the nature and forms of entertainment as well as specific artists that are being promoted. On July 18, the Shura Council released a statement calling on the General Entertainment Authority to be cautious of its actions. The council cited the importance of adhering to Islamic customs and Saudi cultural identity. The statement also said that the General Entertainment Authority has acknowledged that it has had some recent “difficulties.” The statement points to the continuing balancing act the government has to perform between conservative and liberal segments of society while embarking on social reforms. The reforms also highlight the generational divide in the country.
The opening in entertainment has not been exclusive to concerts, nor has it been targeted just to Saudis. The country has collaborated with foreign institutions to conduct cultural diplomacy and has worked to attract a larger international audience. In June, the Ministry of Culture collaborated with an Italian institution to host “An Italian Opera Journey” in Riyadh. The government of Saudi Arabia also signed a joint initiative with UNESCO in support of Vision 2030 goals, including the creation of sustainable cultural tourism and preservation of world heritage sites. The Big Apple Circus, pop-up restaurants like Nobu and Scalini, and the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) are among many other forms of entertainment that have traveled to Saudi Arabia.
The art scene has also been a large focus of recent entertainment reforms. While Saudi Arabia had an organic art scene prior to the announcement of Vision 2030, the opening of formal institutions has created space for artists to grow. The MiSK Art Institute was established in 2017 as part of Mohammed bin Salman’s nonprofit foundation, with prominent Saudi artist Ahmed Mater as its head. While these new platforms allow for growth and acclaim, there are inevitably restrictions in the types of art that are endorsed through formal avenues. Government support for the arts has been a strong push for many Saudi artists, yet the strong institutionalization can also create impediments to the organic creative process.
Unlike the music and entertainment scene, which had essentially no infrastructure or government regulation to support it prior to 2017, the art scene in Saudi Arabia was vibrant before Vision 2030. Galleries such as Athr Gallery in Jeddah and Naila Art Gallery in Riyadh were hubs for Saudi artistic talent. Saudi artists had long completed residencies throughout Europe, the UAE, and the United States before there was a formalized art industry in the kingdom. Additionally, wealthy Saudi families, such as the Jameel family, have been long-term patrons of Saudi and Gulf art and pioneered cultural events such as Jeddah Art Week. Independent organizations funded by private patrons, such as the Saudi Art Council, were operating prior to the creation of larger governmental organizations such as MiSK. The industry was vibrant, but it was also niche, often lacking the government support to create public space for art. Many previously independent art nonprofits and galleries now host events that are branded under the support of the General Entertainment Authority.
One of the government’s largest efforts to support the arts is through Ithra, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, which operates under the patronage of Saudi Aramco. Ithra recently traveled with Mohammed bin Salman to Seoul, South Korea and held events showcasing Saudi art and culture on the sidelines of the crown prince’s meetings. This was a strong attempt by the kingdom to expand its cultural soft power. The quasi-government model allows for some level of independence while still maintaining oversight. In many art events, the government partners with private galleries, artists, or nonprofits allowing the partners to maintain creative direction while the government retains leverage.
The government has also expanded public art displays and spaces. Riyadh Arts, which was unveiled in April, encompasses 11 subprojects aimed at creating an interactive artistic and cultural environment. Throughout Saudi media, it was labeled as an attempt to bring back public art as part of the reopening of the country. The goal of such projects is to create a revival of culture and arts in the public space under the supervision of the government.
Much like the art industry, the Saudi film industry existed prior to the announcement of Vision 2030. The industry enjoyed a niche audience, with most of the filmmakers utilizing avenues such as YouTube to showcase their work. Movies such as “Wadjda” and “Barakah Meets Barakah” were filmed in Saudi Arabia with Saudi casts but were not permitted to be screened inside the country as they were released prior to the reopening of public cinemas. Even before then, the government launched multiple initiatives, including a section within the Ministry of Culture focusing on the development of film in the kingdom.
Alongside private investment from AMC to open 100 cinemas by 2030 throughout Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has also announced the Red Sea International Film Festival, expected to launch in 2020. The festival will be under the Red Sea Film Foundation, which is registered as a nonprofit cultural organization but chaired by the young minister of culture, Prince Badr bin Abdullah. Mahmoud Sabbagh, the director of “Barakah Meets Barakah,” was named president of the foundation.
The government at senior levels has worked to establish an entertainment industry with infrastructure, including dedicated ministries, to provide the country with top-notch performances. With a strong top-down approach, the viability of the private sector in the entertainment industry is a real concern for investors and stakeholders. The development of the necessary infrastructure to support a vibrant entertainment industry is still a work in progress. The opening of museums and plans for Qiddya, a massive entertainment city, are just a few examples of the many projects that have been proposed under Vision 2030. Saudis spend an estimated $22 billion a year traveling outside of the country, so there is real potential for lucrative tourism and entertainment industries inside the country if they are accessible and appealing to Saudis.
The government has thus far been successful in creating and facilitating a vibrant entertainment scene, yet formal education in the arts and music and grass roots development on the community level will be necessary to continue the rapid pace of development in the sector, particularly if it is to mature into a self-sustaining industry.
is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Columbia University. She previously served as programs and outreach assistant at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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