The power of philosophical collaboration in Riyadh

The Riyadh Philosophy Conference this week signifies a transformation in the Kingdom

Saudi Mural Artist, Noura Bint Saidan puts final touches to her art, on the Boulevard as part of the "Riyadh Season" in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia November 23. Reuters

There are many reasons I am looking forward with great enthusiasm to the Riyadh Philosophy Conference – the first event of its kind to be held in the kingdom.

For a start, the conference, from December 8-10, will feature talks by a wide range of the greatest living thinkers on some of the most important issues humanity now faces. For example, audiences – both physical and online – will hear talks by luminaries such as Eva Illouz, Michael Sandel, Luca Maria Scarantino and Patricia Churchland.

Likewise, the conference will be an opportunity for brilliant Saudi speakers to showcase to an international audience the many ways in which they not only now lead philosophical debates within the kingdom, but also how increasingly they will in future play an important role in setting the agenda for the global philosophical conversation.

For example, Dalia Toonsi, the founder of Baseera Educational Consultancy, will be talking on a panel about "inventing new educational paradigms for a mutating world", while Hassan Alsharif, assistant professor of Philosophy and chair of the Saudi Philosophy Centre at Taibah University joins international colleagues to discuss how to respond ethically to the global pandemic. Alwaleed Adel Alsaggaf from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and Dr Abdullah Almutairi, president of the Saudi Philosophy Society, are also speaking at the conference.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is shown around the grid by Stefano Domenicali, chief executive of the Formula One Group, and FIA President Jean Todt before the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia, on December 5, in Jeddah. Getty Images

For those of us fortunate enough to witness any of these talks, I believe they will truly be “I was there” moments – events about which we will tell future generations.

Although as the chief executive of the Ministry of Culture’s Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, I accept I am biased but I predict the programme – organised for the conference by the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission – will ensure it is the stand-out highlight of the 2020 international philosophy calendar.

No other event on philosophy over the course of the last year has brought together such a diverse group of world-class speakers, nor laid on such a spectacular range of talks to ensure philosophy is made accessible for audiences of all types.

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Most exciting of all, perhaps, is the legacy the event will leave to future generations

Everyone who attends the conference – from those engaged in the life-long study of philosophy to those with only the most rudimentary grasp of philosophical concepts – will find something to broaden the mind and to demonstrate that philosophy is not just an ancient discipline that belongs in the past, but rather a vibrant and modern field of scholarship with relevance to everybody.

As well as listening to talks, attendees will have the opportunity to participate in debates and workshops – and also to experience innovative interactive displays designed to bring philosophy to life in a way that is both fun and thought provoking, for people of all ages.

For example, the conference’s Philosophy Tree is a display that illustrates philosophical concepts both enchantingly and educationally. Likewise, the Philosophy Cafe in the main hall will be the perfect place to reflect on life’s most profound ideas.

What enthuses me most about the conference, however, is the potential it has to create an enduring legacy; one that both cements Saudi Arabia’s position as a place to which the greatest philosophers can travel in order to congregate with like-minded scholars to pursue enlightenment, and to create an international network of collaboration and partnership, underpinned by friendship.

Atmosphere during MDL Beast, a three-day festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bringing together the best in music, performing arts and culture.

Indeed, in the weeks and months during which we have worked so hard to prepare the conference, I have been struck repeatedly by the many ways in which the event has already brought about connections and precipitated dialogue that would otherwise not have occurred.

The power of philosophical collaboration to transcend geographies and borders in this way has been noticeable every day, and I know that when the event occurs and speakers and attendees are able to meet face to face, this power will be magnified considerably.

For this reason, I expect the conference to be not only a meeting of minds, but also of friends – the basis for lifelong relationships based upon mutually shared fascination with the biggest questions.

The transformation Saudi Arabia is now undergoing, as we pursue the ambitious goals of Vision 2030, is exhilarating. The scale and pace of positive change occurring throughout the kingdom can be hard to comprehend for people who have not witnessed it first hand.

Moviegoers wait to attend a screening, at the King Abdullah Financial District Theater, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 18, 2018. AP

The Riyadh Philosophy Conference is emblematic of this transformation – a tangible manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s enthusiasm to engage in the spirit of partnership with leading centres of learning, and to ensure our voice is influential in the global debate of ideas.

Most exciting of all, perhaps, is the legacy the event will leave to future generations. In recent years, there has been increasingly keen interest from young people in Saudi Arabia for the manner in which study of philosophy can enrich all experiences, for ourselves and others.

An annual international philosophy conference that becomes an event to which the greatest living philosophers gravitate will only heighten this enthusiasm, by encouraging young minds to delve deeper into the ideas upon which all human interaction and feeling is founded.

The theme of the conference is “unpredictability” and audiences over the course of the three-day event will be challenged to think about how comprehension of philosophical concepts can help us to navigate uncertainty, and also to develop a profound appreciation for the impossibility of divining the future.

Although the last two years, defined as they have been by the pandemic, have demonstrated the unpredictability of life, I feel confident in predicting the Riyadh Philosophy Conference will be a wonderful event.

Published: December 7th 2021, 9:00 AM
Dr Mohammed Alwan

Dr Mohammed Alwan

Dr Mohammed Alwan is the chief executive of the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia