If ever there was a country which suffered in reputation from what everyone reads in the press and thinks it’s going to be like, then it’s Saudi Arabia - not far behind the pervasive demonisation of North Korea and Iran, but for very different reasons.
Not that everything is, as they say, sweetness and light (viz human right issues, the situation with Yemen, censorship, to single out three areas). But make no mistake, the winds of change are blowing through Saudi at an increasing pace, even if the careful observer has to judge which way the wind is blowing on any particular day - a following wind, in your face, or more likely “changeable”!
The headline-catching issue is of course the government’s decision (for government read Crown Prince) to allow women to drive from June next year. Quick as a flash the posh car brands were out on the university campuses with Ferraris and Lamborghinis (I’m not joking) tempting their wealthy new market with special offers - imagine that on the campus at any of our beloved UK higher education institutions! Aside from the evident female excitement at this development, the decision will fundamentally change a number of other Saudi conventions around chaperoning, employment of drivers, women in the work place, women able to spend leisure time as THEY want to, and so forth.
The question I heard on the street, which was symptomatic of everything I observed during the week, was the question of whether this was social revolution disguised as economic reform, or the other way around. The changes, of which one imagines there will be more, will not lead to a social democracy, but they will lead to far greater emancipation of a freedom for women to pursue full time professional careers, and a more competitive employment market, as the Saudi economy (like most in the Gulf) moves from an oil-based economy to a knowledge and skills-based economy. The lavish patriarchal subsidy and tax systems will also have to change. And why, in those moves, exclude half the population who could be contributing, especially when, to take one example, our British Council Exams manager in Saudi told me that women students were much more attentive and hard-working than their male counterparts? And he wasn’t alone in that social observation!
Examples of the contradictions and paradoxes that now abound occurred even as we arrived in the country: the Russian ballet have been invited - imagine, ballet in Saudi Arabia! But the same week a concert by some Egyptian pop singers was suddenly cancelled by the so-called General Entertainment Authority, thus scuppering our meeting with the Authority. And a new Education Minister, a reformer, is now in charge: seven years ago his book on educational reform was banned!
Everything about the changes relate to the much-mentioned Vision 2030, encompassing cultural, social and economic planning. From the cultural side it means more entertainment opportunities (their word), more museums, leisure activities and so on, maybe even cinemas. So much Saudi leisure money is spent abroad at the weekends, in the UAE and Bahrain. Why isn’t there more for citizens to spend their money on at home? Though one cannot imagine international tourism becoming a significant factor until the alcohol laws are relaxed.
There is also a new drive to recognise and conserve cultural heritage - Saudi Arabia currently has four World Heritage sites (we visited one in the old city of Jeddah - a scene of much restoration activity) but they are pushing to increase that to ten sites before 2030. Until recently the Saudis were more intent on knocking things down - even in the holiest city of Mecca - and rebuilding at scale, than on conservation. That is now reversed, though currently they lack the skills, as in most of the cultural sector here to manage and deliver the change. If there was one thing above all our Saudi friends wanted from the UK, it was to learn from our skills throughout the cultural sector. I think it’s imperative we respond with imagination and purpose.
With all those changes in mind, I was there, in Riyadh and Jeddah, leading a delegation of senior UK arts colleagues in search of greater collaboration between the UK and the Kingdom across the cultural spectrum, with a particular emphasis on the museum, heritage and design sectors - and skills. Several we invited had been unwilling to make the trip, but those that did come - and I warmly thank them all - sincerely told us how worthwhile it had been, how prejudices had been overturned, and how much opportunity they saw for the UK cultural and creative economy sector over the next decade. We were joined by DCMs and by DIT in a very positive “joined-up” UK approach.
There were many meetings and roundtables, the actions from which two valued colleagues are diligently collating - universities, ministries, artists, foundations, heritage specialists - and I’m very confident that the eventual outcomes will be strong and positive. It was clear that the Saudis were very pleased we had made the effort to come out, to listen and to engage.
The centrepiece of the trip was without doubt the opening in a not for profit gallery in Jeddah (ATHR) of a new show centering on new work from the British Council Collection, particularly featuring work by women artists and artists from ethnic backgrounds other than the UK, but resident in the UK (Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and others.). What made this such a milestone for us and for Saudi is that we had made an open call to the women of Saudi Arabia through our network for curators to come forward, to be mentored and trained and then to curate the show for us.
The result was both inspiring and moving, as six young women formed themselves into a Collective, and produced an amazing show called “We Are Not Alone”, reflecting on contemporary art which highlights so many issues binding us together, rather than driving us apart. They now want to start an art biennial in Saudi Arabia, and we all wish them well.
I find it hard to recall a trip which, even though it meant no single malt “nightcap” for me at the end of the day, has changed my view of the world so much.
We were warmly welcomed, not to say handsomely fed throughout, and I look forward to much more diverse and exciting UK/Saudi cultural relations in the years ahead.
VIDEO: Watch Graham share his thoughts on the delegation to Saudi Arabia, from the UNESCO World Heritage site Al-Balad in Jeddah