Opinion: Is this Saudi Arabia's Renaissance period?

A progressive development plan to diversify the kingdom's economy is spurring new initiatives in arts and culture
Opinion: Is this Saudi Arabia's Renaissance period?
Purpose built: The facade of the new Maraya concert hall, venue for the Winter at Tantora festival in Al-Ula
By Mona S. Al Munajjed
Fri 19 Apr 2019 12:30 AM

Eight hundred years ago, the Renaissance started in Florence, Italy, and spread throughout Europe. From 1350 to 1600, this cultural movement encompassed great changes in art, learning, literature, philosophy, politics, and science.

In the 19th century, the French historian Jules Michelet coined the word renaissance to describe this artistic and cultural ‘rebirth’ of Europe.

Today, renaissance could describe what’s happening in Saudi Arabia – a rebirth of cultural and artistic ideas along with social and economic changes.

Spearheading this renaissance is Saudi Vision 2030, a progressive development plan to revitalise the country. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud is leading Saudi modernisation with swift social and economic reforms, seeking to diversify the economy and decrease the country’s dependence on oil. He is also expanding the tourism and entertainment industry, sports, culture, recreation and music, to spur employment and youth participation in the labour force. The target is to lower the unemployment rate from 11.6 percent to 7 percent and increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent. For the first time, a Minister of Culture has been appointed to present Saudi Arabia’s culture to the world.

In 2018, travel and tourism contributed $65.2bn to the country’s economy and supported 1.1 million jobs

The Saudi Entertainment Ventures Company (Seven) leads in the entertainment field and promoting  cultural events, seeking to increase Saudi family spending on entertainment from the current level of 2.9 percent to 6 percent. Daem, a national programme to raise the quality of cultural activities and recreation, will generate a national network of clubs for hobbies and leisure.

In 2018, travel and tourism contributed $65.2bn (9 percent) to the country’s economy and supported 1.1 million jobs (World Travel & Tourism Council, 2019). Saudi Arabia aims to attract 50 million tourists by 2030.

In Jeddah, the World Boxing Super Series super-middleweight final was held at King Abdullah Sports City in 2018. And in Riyadh, the Saudi Formula E electric car race was held in Ad Diriya in December 2018. The finale was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and Salman bin Hamad, Crown Prince of Bahrain. Live concerts attracted excited Saudi fans and international tourists, to watch stars such as David Guetta, The Black Eyed Peas, Enrique Iglesias and Amr Diab perform.

Concerts at the Winter at Tantora festival (December 2018–February 2019) in historic Al Ula presented international composers, musicians, and singers, including Yanni, Lang Lang, Andrea Bocelli, Renaud Capuçon, Majida El-Roumi, and Omar Khairat. Even singer Mariah Carey performed at King Abdullah Economic City.

The fifth Saudi Film Festival this March in Sharqiah, Eastern Province, was attended by Bollywood star Salman Khan and US actor Cuba Gooding Jr. Other recent cultural and leisure events include Red Bull Air Race, the Powerboat World Championship, the Saudi Bike Show, the Aqua Bike Championship, the Sailboat Race Kingdom Championship, Cirque Eloize from Montreal, the Leonardo Da Vinci Exhibition and concerts by Pitbull, Akon, French Montana, DG Deadmau5 and Najwa Karam.

Public cinemas are back after a 35-year ban. The first cinema in Riyadh opened last year and two months ago in Jeddah. VOX Cinemas plans to invest $533 million to open 600 screens by 2023. There are separate sessions for women and families and for men. My first encounter with the cinema in Riyadh was Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to Mary Poppins that I  saw as a child. It was packed with children devouring popcorn and young women playing with their mobiles, ignoring Mary and her songs!

And of course, women are now allowed to drive their cars. Although I haven’t yet ventured onto the highways of Riyadh, it’s a great relief that the ban on women driving, an outcome of traditional patriarchal values, has been lifted. It grants women empowerment, responsibility, confidence, freedom of movement, and independence. It also bridges gender disparities and breaks new grounds in social, cultural, educational, and economic fields. The strict black dress code for women has loosened and, although I was still wearing mine, I was surprised at a restaurant to see so many women wearing chic abayas embroidered in soft colours of blue, beige and grey.

Investments in entertainment infrastructure are expected to reach $64bn. And to improve the quality of lives of Saudi citizens, Seven has launched a $23bn project to build green areas in Riyadh, such as King Salman Park, the world’s biggest city park, including Sports Boulevard – a 135-km cycling track, golf, equestrian and sky-diving centres, Green Riyadh and Riyadh Art, comprising a national theatre, art academies, the Museum of Islamic Art, and an opera house.

Qiddiya, an entertainment resort near Riyadh, two-and-a-half times the size of Disney World, will offer recreational sporting facilities, educational facilities and vacation homes to promote health and wellbeing. It is expected to attract 17 million visitors by 2030.

Neom, a $500bn mega-city project in Tabuk will focus on 5-star hotels and tourist facilities to be managed by artificial intelligence. The Red Sea Project, a nature reserve, will offer coral-reef diving on about 50 islands.

As a sociologist, I believe that change in the patterns of culture, structure and social behaviour is an inevitable law of nature

Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming a regional cultural hub, changing from inaccessibility into a fascinating destination for foreign tourists and investors. It is unlocking its boundaries and responding to a young Saudi generation delighted by the new enlightenment. Others are still digesting the fast changes and considering their impact on society.

As a sociologist, I believe that change in the patterns of culture, structure and social behaviour is an inevitable law of nature. Positive change is vital to the evolution of society, away from stagnation and lack of growth. It improves societal conditions for the benefit of its people. Embracing change stimulates creativity and the courage to acquire new learning and a fulfilling life.

Acceptable entertainment is crucial to Saudi society, bringing people together and strengthening family bonds. It provides fun and joy needed by everyone. Culture promotes diversity and communication. Art is a national resource, reflecting our cultural values and identity, and providing a tool of communication with other cultures across barriers of language and ethnicity, fostering understanding and tolerance. Art is a means of self-expression and encourages creative thinking. As a painter, I believe that art enriches the soul and stimulates the brain. Music connects people regardless of culture and background. It explores emotions, creates happiness and provides relaxation. By releasing dopamine in the brain music reduces stress, lessens anxiety, and eases pain.

The renaissance of Saudi Arabia will triumph only if it reforms and modernises while still preserving its moderate social and cultural traditions. Change has to occur, but gradually from within the social environment, following the pace and norms of society. People who resist change are reluctant to leave their comfort zone, fearing a loss of identity, but changes should enrich one’s life and improve its quality. We must learn how to make those changes to benefit Saudi society’s transition to the modern age. The first Renaissance changed the world; this new Renaissance will change Saudi Arabia for the better.


Dr. Mona S. Al Munajjed, sociologist, author and adviser

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