State of the Art: Culture and Saudi Arabia’s New Soft Power Strategy

By Hisham Fageeh
Submitted to Session P5880 (You Must Listen to the Artist! The Gulf's Creative Class in the Twenty-First Century, 2020 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
Arabian Peninsula;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia’s government has used its petrol wealth and Islam as potent tools of soft power, shaping cultural and religious discourses throughout the Muslim world. After King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015, Riyadh adopted culture as a new tool of soft power. Not only is culture an integral part of Vision 2030—Riyadh’s strategy to wean itself from its traditional dependence on oil exports—but it is also a central part of Saudi foreign policy. In 2020, the Saudi state and other national actors linked to it supported exhibits of the country’s artists at leading museums and film festivals around the world while funding new domestic art institutions.

This paper explores how and why the Saudi government has turned to art as a vehicle to promote its goals at home and abroad. Building on my knowledge gained over fifteen years working in the country’s creative industry, I will argue that the state, through its work with McKinsey and other global consulting firms, identified art as a tool to “rebrand” the country as a modern, open society ready for the twenty-first century. We can see these goals in the creation of a Ministry of Culture (in 2018) along with the work of MiSK, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s non-profit, promoting arts at home and with the country’s foreign partners.

I will also focus on the response of the Saudi contemporary artistic movement which, as a number of Western scholars have noted, was undergoing a renaissance in the 2010s. How have male and female creatives responded to Saudi government’s interest in their work? How have they managed the benefits along with the drawbacks of working closely with the government.

Finally, I will investigate the limits of the new soft power strategy and ask whether other ways of promoting art could yield better results—both for the artists and for Saudi society as a whole. Is it possible for works to emerge from the grass roots, such as the film Theeb in Jordan, while also meeting the development goals of the government? Can Saudi artists, some of whom have developed global reputations, retain their integrity and the power of their work if they are widely perceived as being co-opted?