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Riyadh (Ar-Riyaaḍ – الرياض – meaning ‘The Gardens’) is the capital of Saudi Arabia and its largest city. It rose to prominence only in the 20th century. As a result there are no significant landmarks of cultural heritage, with the exception of some buildings in Batha and al Dira, of local interest. The city sprawls through the desert, unconstrained by natural limitations. In 1930 the city held 27 thousand inhabitants within its walls, on a surface of 0.3 square kilometers. Eighty years later 5 to 6 million Riyadhis live in a city that covers 1800 square kilometers.
Riyadh, the base of the house of Saud since the 19th century and capital of the central Nejd region, is decidedly more conservative than other major cities of the Kingdom. Almost all women wear the niqab (covering the whole face except the eyes). The religious police seems to be omnipresent, making meetings between unrelated Islamic-looking men and women in public space quite risky. Art also is more heavily censored than in Jeddah. There is less appetite for socio-political statements through art than in other cities of the region.
With such a large population, Riyadh nevertheless offers the anonymity of big cities to those who seek it. As often happens, strict control by the authorities encourages deviant social behavior, and alcohol and drugs are apparently easily available within certain groups of the upper and middle strata of society. There are also some incipient underground movements (rock, hip-hop and the like) but, due to the restrictions imposed on public life, they do not seem to develop past the initial stages.
Cultural life in Riyadh is shaped more strongly by religion than elsewhere in the country; any form of art – even appreciation of cultural heritage – is frowned upon by the religious authorities, with the possible exception of religiously-orientated tribal poetry. The Western-educated political elite generally holds a more mild view of arts and culture, but this appreciation of art is mostly expressed in private circles, not publicly.
Public life in Riyadh is singularly devoid of art, probably to an extent unparalleled elsewhere in the world. American mall ‘culture’ has completely filled this void. Art can only enter the public realm under the guise of education. The National Museum is the prime example of this. A visit to the Museum is a pleasant, memorable experience. It stands within the gardens and the other historic buildings of the King Abdulaziz Center. Note that here, as elsewhere in public life in Riyadh, there is a strict segregation of the sexes meaning that access as a single young man is limited to ‘non-family’ hours.
This segregation applies also to education. Thus women can follow art courses at the Arts & Skills College, but there is no formal art education for men. This mirrors social attitudes about art as being ‘something for women’.
The contemporary art scene
There is really not much of an art scene here, even less so than in Jeddah. In fact the only publicly accessible spaces for contemporary art are Lam Art and Alaan Art Space. Another place of interest is the Hewar Gallery, but it shows mainly art of the Arab modernist style. There are no other places to experience contemporary art, unless one can access private collections. Several collectors in Riyadh use their position to promote or raise awareness about Saudi contemporary art, for example Abdullah al Turki (one of the main backers of Edge of Arabia), Adel al Mandil from the Kinda Foundation or Shadda al Tassan from Hewar.
The Riyadh art scene, though small, suffers from the fragmentation of urban society, and art lovers from one group may not be aware of the activities of another group. This fragmentation, plus the politically-backed religious pressure to ward art from the public domain, and the general lack of awareness among society about art, thwart the development of the art scene. Each group nevertheless nurtures its own plans, because among the city’s large and cosmopolitan population there is a considerable potential audience for art.
In Riyadh, as in Jeddah, there are no permanent venues for performing arts. During festivals some theatre or musical performances are usually programmed, but mostly in traditional style. The best place to hear good music is at private parties of the cultural elite. As for literature, there is a yearly book fair in Riyadh in March (read more about this in the essay).
Thanks to Riyadh’s vastness it is quite possible to live an artist’s life in this metropolis. As one artist put it, the lack of entertainment opportunities means he has a lot of time to spend on his work. The lack of a contemporary art scene is partially made up by friendships among artists, while social media give artists the opportunity to participate in virtual art communities worldwide.
Opportunities for artistic cooperation
Obtaining a visa for Saudi Arabia is not so easy for Western citizens. The inviting party must clear the invitation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which if it approves the request, issues a visa ticket. With that ticket and other documents one can obtain a Saudi visa in a matter of days.
Within Riyadh most taxis work with the meter. A typical ride will cost 20-30 Riyal. The more lively old center of the city is situated around al Batha.
The modern center is situated around Olaya Street, and is (presumably) a shopper’s paradise. The 100-floor high Kingdom Tower is situated here; it is the city’s main landmark.
Filming in the street without permission can get one into trouble with the police; one also has to be careful with photography. Never photograph within sight of the police.
Finally, be aware of prayer times. All public life freezes six times a day (see here for Riyadh prayer times). If you’re in a shop or café/restaurant you will be asked to wait outside; if you have an appointment you better wait until prayer time is over. Most taxis still ride, though, so you can get from one place to another during prayer time.
Written by: RobertK