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Saudi Arabia's art scene is exploding, but who benefits?

A Saudi man visits an arts exhibition by late US artist Andy Warhol at the Maraya concert hall in the ruins of AlUla, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Saudi Arabia, on February 19, 2023.
AFP via Getty Images
A Saudi man visits an arts exhibition by late US artist Andy Warhol at the Maraya concert hall in the ruins of AlUla, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Saudi Arabia, on February 19, 2023.

The Saudi government is considered one of the most conservative and repressive in the world, with strict gender-based laws and an expansive death penalty. But now, a country that once had a decades-long ban on movie theaters has morphed into a regional hub for arts and entertainment.

Later this month, it will host a Formula One Grand Prix race for the third year in a row. But there's also a massive rave in the desert outskirts of the capital Riyadh in December, an Andy Warhol exhibition currently underway in the oasis city AlUla and an international film festival whose third edition starts in November. Each year, the capital Riyadh is now punctuated with artworks for the world's largest festival of lights.

A picture taken November 3, 2022 shows Saudis attending the Noor Riyadh lighting festival held at Al-Salam Park in the Saudi capital Riyadh. - Noor Riyadh, brings light installations to more than 40 locations in a fast-growing city of more than seven million people, many of whom may never consider dropping in on a gallery.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A picture taken November 3, 2022 shows Saudis attending the Noor Riyadh lighting festival held at Al-Salam Park in the Saudi capital Riyadh. - Noor Riyadh, brings light installations to more than 40 locations in a fast-growing city of more than seven million people, many of whom may never consider dropping in on a gallery.

Critics say these shifts are purely transactional, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman trading the appearance of an open culture to paper over a dismal human rights record and buy political capital from the country's young population, but arts practitioners speak of real change on the ground.

The F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 05, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Mark Thompson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 05, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Jeed Basyouni, who investigates the use of the death penalty across the Middle East and North Africa for rights group Reprieve, says the unprecedented level of changes comes at a price.

"Why we take particular issue with the use of art and sports and entertainment in this way is because it's very strategic on the behalf of Mohammed bin Salman," she told NPR's Leila Fadel.

"It's not out of the goodness of his heart that he's opening up Saudi society. There's a lot of money there for himself and the public... Saudi Arabia has a very young population who have been mostly very bored for the last 30 years because of how restricted society has been. If you distract them with these things, they won't notice that from the other hand, he's making society more repressive than it's ever been."

Reprieve published a report earlier this year with a Saudi partner, the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights. They found an 82% jump in executions since King Salman and his son the crown prince came to power in 2015.

Basyouni pointed to child defendants or the case of scholar Hassan al-Maliki, who has been imprisoned since 2017 on charges such as owning unauthorized books, publishing tweets and being interviewed by Western outlets. While he has not been sentenced, the public prosecutor has called for the death penalty.

"Mohammed bin Salman will decide what Saudi Arabia will look like and anyone that has any view will be punished," Basyouni added.

But despite these very real numbers, creatives from around the region are now flocking to Saudi Arabia as a place to showcase their work.

Award winner celebrate on stage during the finale of the Closing Night Gala Awards at the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 08, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
/ Getty Images for The Red Sea Int
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Getty Images for The Red Sea Int
Award winner celebrate on stage during the finale of the Closing Night Gala Awards at the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 08, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese filmmaker Dania Bdeir recently premiered her short film Warsha, which explores gender identity, at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

"There is a willingness to at least allow for some stories to be told, and maybe when it comes to completely talk about politics — that stuff, not quite yet, I don't know if that will ever happen — but at least starting with human self-expression and each one telling their own story. That's beginning."

Dubai-based cultural strategist and art consultant Myrna Ayad has worked in Saudi Arabia for years. She is quick to point to the long history of art practice and appreciation in the kingdom, where late Jeddah mayor Mohammed Saeed Farsi installed more than 400 sculptures by Saudi, Arab and international artists across the city. And in 1968, Munira Mosli and Safeya Binzagr were the first Saudi women whose work was featured in an exhibition in the country.

Art, Ayad says, can break down barriers.

"I do fundamentally believe that you can change somebody's mind, you can influence their opinion, you can alter their thought if you do it through art and culture. I think that this is how we develop tolerance, we develop understanding," she said.

A view shows the Maraya concert hall, the world's largest mirrored building, in the ruins of Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Saudi Arabia, on February 19, 2023, where an exhibition showing works by the late US artist Andy Warhol is taking place until May 16 of this year.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A view shows the Maraya concert hall, the world's largest mirrored building, in the ruins of Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Saudi Arabia, on February 19, 2023, where an exhibition showing works by the late US artist Andy Warhol is taking place until May 16 of this year.

Saudi artists find ways around censorship, such as Nasser Al-Salem, who uses mixed media to re-contextualize traditional Arabic calligraphy.

She rebukes critics who focus on the political expediency behind the crown prince's apparent cultural opening, asking the public instead to focus on what the art itself has to say.

"We are a determined few, and we work very hard and we are committed to what we are doing. We believe in our countries and our region and our heritage, and we are proud of it," said Ayad, who is Lebanese and was born in Beirut. "If you are going to look at me based on my country's government, what's left? You have to you have to see me from another light. You have to see me for who I am: I'm an arts practitioner or I am a Saudi artist or I'm an Emirati artist or I'm a Lebanese artist. Come on."

These interviews were conducted by Leila Fadel, produced by Kaity Kline and edited by Olivia Hampton. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.