Saudi culture changes: new artist visas, a national theatre and more festivals

'Too many people are unaware that we have a plethora of wonderfully talented artists, poets, designers, architects, musicians, singers, comedians, authors, and more,' said the Culture Minister

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Saudi Arabia is set to embrace culture and the arts, with an ambitious plan to bring it into people’s everyday lives and make it an engine for future economic growth.

The country’s new Ministry of Culture unveiled a series of major policy initiatives to kickstart culture in the Kingdom on Wednesday evening, with funds for projects, more museums, festivals, fashion shows and exhibitions of contemporary art.

For the first time, Saudi Arabia will allow international artists to live in the country through a new residency visa.

In all, 27 initiatives were revealed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, the country's first Minister of Culture, and a close friend of the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. These plans also include the Red Sea International Film Festival, which will be held next year in Jeddah.

The Ministry wants to provide the resources to promote and expand cultural activities across Saudi society, with scholarships, “Houses of Culture” and other educational projects. National film archives, a music band and a national theatre are also planned, along with better documentation of the country’s oral traditions and its intangible cultural heritage in areas like dance and poetry.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by KHALED ELFIQI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9931280t)
Saudi Arabia Minister of Culture Badr bin Abdallah bin Muhammad bin Farhan Al Saud (L) and Egyptian Minister of Culutre Enas Abdel-Dayem (C) attend celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture at the Cairo Opera house, in Cairo, Egypt, 14 October 2018.
Celebrations mark 60th anniversary of Egyptian Ministry of Culture, Cairo, Egypt - 14 Oct 2018

The proposals, set out in a document called Our Culture, Our Identity, also hope to bring together the country's often fragmented cultural scene, which in the past has meant many artists have had to live and work abroad both to train and find recognition.

Many leading artists have lent their support to the ministry and Prince Badr, including Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, the novelist Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and Rajaa Al-Sanea, sometimes called the Carrie Bradshaw of the Middle East for her 2005 novel, Girls Of Riyadh, which is credited with launch a new wave of literature aimed at young Saudi women.

Dubai - February 27, 2009 - Arab author Rajaa al-Sanea at the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, February 27, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/ The National )  *** Local Caption ***  JT031-0227-LIT FESTIVAL RAJAA al-SANEA IMG_0672.jpgJT031-0227-LIT FESTIVAL RAJAA al-SANEA IMG_0672.jpg

The ceremony in Riyadh’s museum district to launch the cultural drive was a reflection of the huge changes sweeping through Saudi society. Men and women mingled freely in the audience listening to songs from popular Saudi performers and a band that comprised musicians of both sexes.

'Better late than never'

In his speech, Prince Badr said that many people were ignorant of the depth of Saudi talent across all areas of the arts.

“Too many people are unaware that we have a plethora of wonderfully talented artists, poets, designers, architects, musicians, singers, comedians, authors, and more”, he said, adding: “We will transform our cultural sector to make it part of people’s everyday lives, accessible for all. We will make it stronger.”

The new ministry, he said, would support existing forms of culture and heritage, while encouraging new forms of artistic expression.

“Our efforts will make sure arts and culture become something we can all be proud of, contributing to economic growth, and supporting cultural exchange and understanding,” he said.

Artist Lulwah Al Hamoud, who incorporates calligraphy in her work and who has been widely exhibited internationally, said she studied in London in the 1980s because there were no fine arts degrees in Saudi at the time.

Many people, she said, still did not believe there was an arts scene in Saudi Arabia. “I know it is time now,” she said. “This is better late than never.”