After spending time in the 1920s in what is now Saudi Arabia, TE Lawrence echoed a then-widespread Western view when he wrote: “[T]here was so little Arab art that one could say Arab art did not exist.” Given Lawrence’s experience as an archaeologist, his withering statement does him little credit.
Even the most superficial glance into Saudi’s cultural sites reveals a region rich in treasures, from the 10,000-year-old enigmatic rock art in the Hail Region, depicting camel and oryx, to the vernacular mud-brick palace and architecture in the At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah, once the centre of temporal power for the House of Saud. Fortunately, UNESCO, among others, has woken up to Saudi’s cultural richness and added six sites to their world heritage list.
However, a century on from Lawrence’s visit, a divisive perception of contemporary culture in Saudi Arabia still holds sway, arising as much from resistance inside the Kingdom as from ignorance or prejudice outside it. Even Saudi commentators have said that “contempt for art lies at the heart of Saudi’s values”. This lack of engagement has (unfairly) been conflated with the country’s prevailing Wahhabism (a reformist movement within Sunni Islam), which is perceived as a chauvinist blanket obscuring any engagement with contemporary art and culture.
By signing cultural agreements, Western arts bodies confer legitimacy on a brutal, autocratic regime
But formerly conservative attitudes towards culture were apparently overturned when, in 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (known as MBS) announced his “Vision 2030”, which aims to convert Saudi into a post-oil state. Other facets of the programme – notably the spending spree on NEOM, a huge, futuristic city – and the Public Investment Fund (PIF) on sustainable projects, have been widely reported on. But they’re part of a vision for the country which has a cultural renaissance at its heart.
The increase in the volume of Saudi’s cultural projects and the state’s accompanying investment is perhaps unmatched outside China, who until recently were building 100 museums a year. A quick name check of some of the biggest state-backed and independent projects reveals a network of impressive biennials and foundations including: The Edge of Arabia; 21,39 Jeddah Arts; Desert X Biennale (expanded from Coachella); The Islamic Arts Biennale; and The Diriyah Biennale.
Such plans are perhaps unsurprising given the Kingdom wants to generate ten per cent of its annual GDP from tourism alone. Beyond the event-based projects, this year Saudi has already unveiled plans for two of fifteen new cultural assets planned for AlUla. The first will be a dedicated contemporary art institution and the other will explore the history of the Incense Road.
On the plus side, these events and museums are (on the whole) state-backed Saudi projects promoting Saudi artists and heritage to an international audience. However, these institutions – including the new “mega museum” Ithra – are likely to be telling airbrushed accounts of their nation’s history, and you’re not going to find a museum dedicated to human rights or women’s freedom. Even more problematic are the collaborations with a host of international governments and arts organisations, and sometimes individual artists and museum workers. Saudi’s presumably tempting offers are at best a soft-power grab, and at worst artwashing plain and simple. So who has taken the oil-soaked bait? Most notably the Pompidou Centre, who this year signed a landmark agreement with Saudi Arabia over its new open-air museum in the desert region of AlUla. Although the extent of the deal is unclear, the agreement entitles the Saudis to borrow from the Pompidou’s renowned collection of modern and contemporary art. The deal is intimately connected to a wider agreement the Kingdom has with the French state on the “sustainable development of the AlUla region and its transformation into a world-class cultural and tourism destination.”
Although the Pompidou has been keen to expand its footprint of late – also setting up shop in Seoul – I can only imagine it went to Saudi for a hefty fee. After all, given Saudi has announced they’re going to have to buy their way to a contemporary collection (reportedly, Yayoi Kusama, Carmen Herrera, Manal AlDowayan, Etel Adnan all feature on their shopping list), there isn’t much in the way of reciprocity in such an agreement.
The UK also agreed a culture deal with Saudi last year during the Diriyah Biennale, albeit more watered down than the French one. It was signed by then-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries whose comment “[T]his new agreement will strengthen our ties on film, museums and heritage,” betrayed no understanding of the deeper political issues at stake.
Another project overseen by the region’s contemporary art arm (the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel, chaired by ex-Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick) is the Wadi AlFann project: a permanent sculpture park with US Land Art heavyweights James Turrell, Agnes Denes and Michael Heizer, who are all working closely with Saudi for their site-specific commissions. Earlier this year, the Andy Warhol Museum lent a tranche of works for FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla. And the 45th meeting of the World Heritage Committee took place in Riyadh last month.
By signing such agreements, these Western international bodies – from the UK government to the Pompidou – undoubtedly confer legitimacy on what is a brutal, autocratic regime. Although limited reforms have taken place, Saudi Arabia still represses basic freedoms such as homosexuality and free speech. The Ministry of Interior announced that it executed 81 men on one day in March, and in July a Saudi court chillingly gave the death sentence to a retired teacher, Mohammed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, for publishing anti-government posts to just ten followers on two anonymous Twitter accounts.
But can we – should we – try and look beyond such human rights violations in order to avoid a polarising boycott of the entire Saudi art ecosystem? In most circumstances it would be unthinkable. But there could be exceptions in the defence of art and artists.
The first is that it’s important to distinguish between individual and state: grass roots organisations and national museums. It may sound obvious, but there are artists in Saudi Arabia that we can all learn from. One of these is Manal AlDowayan, whose 2011 installation Suspended Together poignantly documents the culture of Male Guardianship – specifically the fact that Saudi women need men’s permission to travel. Manal is not an arm of the Saudi state, but an outspoken artist. In the same way UK museums supported Ai Wei Wei without supporting China, they should look to working closely with Manal and others.
The second point is that we risk undermining the power of art – and cultural exchange more broadly – if we only see the art circulating in these deals as a pawn of greasy elites and grubby diplomacy. Banning these deals means we deny art its autonomy, and within that the power to rise above its questionable context.
If we believe (as every museum so earnestly says it does) that art can be a vehicle for radical, progressive self-expression, and a resource to learn about other ways of living – then surely we should send it to every regime and nation we don’t agree with? Furthermore, Saudis are young: two thirds of the population are under 35, with nearly half of this number made up of unmarried women. Art and the creative economies are surely one of the few areas of society where such women can freely express themselves – or engage with stories that speak directly to their concerns.
Finally, it was no accident that UNESCO hosted their World Heritage Committee in Riyadh this year. Saudi has been ploughing money into heritage projects, which by their very nature are urgent. Unlike contemporary art museums, which arguably have the luxury of not working with those that go against their ethics, the heritage world doesn’t have this choice. If there’s a choice between saving a crumbling monument or not because the money’s tainted – it’s a no-brainer.
Of course, there are degrees of acceptability. Perhaps Western museums should try to work only with grass-roots organisations or individual artists, or at least be transparent about why they are taking on these projects. The National Gallery in London, for example, very quietly lent a number of its masterworks to a state-owned Chinese museum this summer, another country beset by human rights abuses.
It’s no secret that UK museums are struggling financially, but perhaps now is the time to debate these publicly funded institutions? Taxpayers deserve to part of the conversation, rather than learning about national treasures being part of back room deals. It’s time to talk.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London