Asir mountain festival is perfect stepping stone for young Saudi woman

Shahd Abdullah relishes interaction with visitors as the kingdom opens up to cultures from around the world

Shahd Abdullah enjoys the world view afforded by working at the Qemam International Festival for Mountain Performance Arts in Saudi Arabia's Asir region. Photo: Shahd Abdullah
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The best part about working at Saudi Arabia's Qemam International Festival for Mountain Performance Arts is learning about other cultures, says Shahd Abdullah.

"It is not the first time that I have worked with this event," Shahd, 22, told The National. "I worked with them in the first edition last year and enjoyed it very much."

The festival, organised by Ministry of Culture, is held in the mountainous south-western region of Asir. There are 16 Saudi and 14 international folk troupes taking part this year, with 32 performances scheduled from January 21-27 in eight villages around the main cities of Abha and Khamis Mushait.

Shahd, from Khamis Mushait, works as a public relations officer at the festival. With the diversity of foreign participation, including India, China, Scotland, Morocco, South Korea and Switzerland this year, what she enjoys most is getting to "know about the cultures through my eyes and ears".

"I enjoy it more when we receive visitors at the venue and get to share the diverse cultures with them and to see them enjoy themselves in heritage palaces where these events are held," she says.

Shahd is stationed at the Maliki palace in Abha, where she welcomes local and foreign visitors and speaks to them about the different countries performing and their traditional costumes, as well as the cultural heritage of the Asir region.

The conversations are a "mixture between our origins and cultures, and cultures from other countries".

Shahd's participation in the event fits in neatly with her wide-ranging interests and passions, which include organising events, fashion, salsa dancing and writing short stories.

"There was a period of my life when I learnt sign language — that interested me. I like to make conversation with new people in a coffee shop. I like Japanese culture — I love anime, I like to make matcha ... I like to learn about many cultures," she says.

She hopes to get a full-time job at the Culture Ministry after the festival ends. She says she prioritises cultural events as they give her the opportunity to be a part of the sweeping changes in the kingdom under the Vision 2030 plan announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016.

Vision 2030 opened many doors to women as the country underwent transformative economic and social reforms and opened borders to the world. It also gave new hope to young people in the kingdom, where 70 per cent of the population is under 30.

The participation of Saudi women in the kingdom's workforce has more than doubled, from 17.7 per cent in 2016 to 37 per cent, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, Ahmed Al Rajhi, said this month.

Shahd says she feels "immensely proud, excited to see and be a part of these wonderful changes".

She has many plans for the future, "the most prominent of which is that I learn something new every day and keep acquiring more knowledge".

"I like to move around and see other cultures. I intend to work with the Ministry of Culture because I love this job, and I see myself in better and bigger places with the ministry," she says.

Updated: January 27, 2023, 6:00 PM