Current policies provide breathing space for the cultural and artistic sectors. It seems young Saudi artists are releasing a lot of pent-up energy. There are, however, no specific policies for creating an arts sector. The Kingdom lacks art schools, museums, exhibition halls and all the other basic elements of an artistic infrastructure. From the government’s point of view, contemporary visual arts remain problematic, as they might stir Islamist resentment, without serving a particular policy purpose or a large community in return.
The Saudi government and many important institutions do, however, appreciate the positive PR effect the support of contemporary art has on international audiences. While the success of Edge of Arabia (2008 onwards) was achieved with little or no government support, the Saudi government did organize a pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2011.
Within Saudi Arabia, the government can keep the religious police at bay, but any event deemed contrary to a strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam may provoke the ire of self-appointed guardians of the faith. Each step towards a more liberal, plural, society might be met by violent protests. This already occurred with the introduction of television in 1966.
The case of the Riyadh book fair is illustrative. In 2010, the fair only hosted publishers with very safe, innocuous books. In 2011, the scope was enlarged to books about political, social and cultural subjects. A mob attacked the book fair, beating publishers and visitors, because such devilish books might detract Saudis from the true faith. This did not deter the government from further expanding the scope of the book fair in 2012. Not only were books (mildly) critical of religion and Saudi politics allowed, but the fair organizers decided to allow men and women to visit the fair simultaneously. The stir created on social media by Islamists before the fair prompted the government to issue stern warnings that disruptions of the fair would not be allowed, and strict security measures were taken to avoid them. The fair reportedly attracted a million visitors, giving an indication that many Saudis would like more relaxed cultural policies, as they seem to outnumber the fundamentalists.
In recent years, Saudi writers such as Raja Alem, Abdo Khal and Turki al Hamad have won international prizes and were translated into many languages. Despite the Saudi government expressing pride in its award-winning authors, their books are not available in the Kingdom. A book that has been a success both inside and outside the Kingdom is Rajaa Alsanea’s ‘Girls of Riyadh’(2005), which describes the love-life of a group of rich young Saudi girls. Written as a series of e-mails sent out to a group of friends, the book provides valuable insights into modern Saudi high society. It was banned in Saudi Arabia and is deemed controversial by the country’s authorities, but it circulates widely nevertheless.
Film is picking up slowly, with the award-winning ‘Wadjda’ by Haifaa al Mansour winning a prize at Cannes in 2013. The movie is shot entirely in a lower-class neighborhood of Riyadh and portrays a young girl trying to escape from the restricted roles offered to her by society. Another female movie director, Ahd Kamel, similarly tackles gender roles in her movie ‘Sanctity’, screened in the Berlin Film Festival in 2013.
There is much less censorship in the lively Saudi pop scene, with singers famous throughout the Arab world such as Mohamed Abdu and Abdul-Majeed Abdullah, or the rapper Qusai; there seem to be many bands playing a variety of Western music styles in Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah. Saudi Arabia also has interesting folkloric music, especially along the Red Sea coast, but it risks being drowned by Arab-American commercial pop culture and the lack of interest of the authorities in preserving this cultural heritage – with the notable exception of the Janadriya cultural festival. This folklore festival takes place every February just outside Riyadh in a purpose-built village, which simulates the different cultures of the country (building styles, food, sports, music and dances).
The Saudi design scene is also picking up; Saudi Design Magazine offers a regular overview of creations by Saudi designers, while other ‘arty’ magazines like Oasis also provide extensive coverage. Many would-be artists study design and work in that branch, because ‘artist’ is still not a socially acceptable occupation.
There has been some media buzz about Saudi street art. However, as one Saudi graffiti artist who had been part of the US and European graffiti scenes pointed out, the related subculture does not exist in Saudi Arabia; as he put it, the ‘street art scene’ consists of teenagers indulging in a bit of copycat behavior, inspired by internet or music videos, on a weekend afternoon.
More interesting perhaps from a cultural point of view (although this could not be considered art), is the ‘sport’ of slipper skating or the acrobatic stunts performed with cars (drifting), including changing wheels while driving. The 2012 video clip ‘Bad Girls’ by the British artist Mia is inspired by these Saudi stunts, which are well documented on YouTube. Such activities can be taken as testimony to the extreme boredom of Saudi youth and their thirst for thrills.