Cultural policy in Saudi Arabia

Ushering in an era of change?

Under its new King Salman, Saudi Arabia seems to be striving for cultural convergence with the West. People there are happily tweeting, emailing and going to the theatre – and that includes women. Is a cultural turning point in the offing? By Joseph Croitoru

The new Saudi King Salman Ibn Abdel Aziz Al Saud is evidently dedicated to carrying forth the reforms of his predecessor, Abdullah, including on the cultural front. The new monarch, nearing his eighties, has named 35-year-old Adel Al Toraifi as minister of culture and information, by far the youngest person to hold this office.

Like his predecessor and several other prominent Saudi politicians, Al Toraifi studied in the West. He completed an engineering degree in Germany and worked for a short time at Siemens; he then switched to political science and wrote his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics in 2012, while also working as a journalist.

With relations between Riyadh and Tehran at a new low, his PhD topic, "The Role of National Identities in the Foreign Policy Decision-Making Process: The Rise and Demise of Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement, 1997–2009", remains highly controversial.

Al Toraifi's knowledgeable articles on Middle Eastern politics helped him to ascend the career ladder quickly. Having held executive positions, including at the Saudi international television channel ″Al Arabiya″, he was most recently editor-in-chief of the Saudi journal "Al Sharq Al Awsat", which is published in London.

Adel Al Toraifi, Saudi Arabia's Culture and Information Minister (photo: YouTube)
Driving reform forward: Adel Al Toraifi is charged with managing Saudi's Arabia cultural affairs. Educated in the West, with considerable journalistic experience to his name - could the minister be the catalyst for freedom of expression under the Wahhabite dynasty?

His promotion to minister is thought to signal an upcoming re-organisation of the Saudi media landscape. After many years abroad, Al Toraifi returned to his homeland at the beginning of the year to find a country in the throes of far-reaching changes.

In the final years of King Abdullah's reign, the Saudis were swept up in a wave of reforms that continue to affect many areas of life. The government encouraged its people to become part of the digital revolution. Even though the Internet is filtered, many in the country now accept as a matter of course that they can have their own Facebook and Twitter pages and publish on the Internet.

Criticism of the policies of the royal house is not tolerated, however, and has been punished more severely since the tightening of the press law in 2011. The case of Raif Badawi, for example, drew worldwide attention. Despite all the protests, the blogger is still being threatened with further floggings. Another victim of the censorship policy who, by contrast, is little-known abroad is the much older and highly respected journalist Zuhair al Kutbi, who has been detained since July – without charge.

Need for clear aims

Despite all the censorship, the Saudi media landscape is livelier today than ever before. There are currently some two thousand electronic newspapers in the country, of which only one third or so have valid permits. At least, that is the version propagated by the culture and information ministry, which recently caused an uproar with its announcement of plans to close many of these Internet portals. According to its rationale, the majority of them are fixated on local and tribal affairs and thus do not reflect national interests. And many of their operators are supposedly not qualified journalists.

Minister Al Toraifi's frequent travels, the fact that he has had the editors-in-chief of the leading Saudi newspapers replaced, as well as details that have surfaced of his meetings with executives at local broadcasters suggest that he is primarily seeking to raise the level of professionalism in the spontaneously mushrooming Saudi media landscape.

King Salman Ibn Abdel Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/SPA)
Loosening the stranglehold: having named a 35 year-old as minister of culture and information, King Salman seems bent on continuing the policy of reform set in motion by his predecessor, King Abdullah. What sociocultural vision is driving the process remains to be seen

Unfortunately, questions about concrete plans in this area, on censorship policy and on the fate of the imprisoned journalists Badawi and Al Kutbi that were addressed by this newspaper to Saud Kutab, the Twitter-happy culture ministry spokesman, have gone unanswered. It thus remains a mystery which agenda, in particular in the cultural realm, the new minister intends to pursue.

Since 2011, culture has for the most part been the purview of a man some twenty years his senior, the "Deputy for Cultural Affairs" Nasser al Hejailan, who completed his doctorate in cultural studies in the USA. Under his auspices, the country's cultural arena has made great strides in recent years. It is mainly dominated by two institutions: the so-called "literary clubs" operating in sixteen Saudi cities are responsible for cultivating poetry and literature, and the "Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts", likewise with sixteen branches, which in turn is devoted to the visual arts, theatre, music and folklore.

Unlike the latter, the literary clubs have been undergoing far-reaching structural changes since 2011, when they were given the right to elect their own boards. The fact that board members now include women and, what's more, many who do not fit the usual profile of Saudi writers, has triggered controversy and led several members to leave the clubs.

Not only Saudi theatre

Another stir was caused when the culture ministry official in charge of the literary clubs stepped down at the end of April. No successor has yet been appointed. The way the ministry has recently taken to describing these organisations as "literary cultural clubs" suggests that the scope of their work is to be extended. It is possible they could be used to incorporate political issues on the government's agenda and to appeal even more directly to the younger generation, who – in Saudi Arabia as elsewhere in the Arab world – are to be swayed from slipping into extremism.

Likewise permeated with the reform spirit are the events organised by the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts. Women have long been active participants, their activities coordinated in each case by a "women's committee". Amateur actresses already founded their own theatre groups several years ago in many Saudi cities and put on pieces – for exclusively female audiences – that deal with everyday problems faced by Saudi women.

The government newspaper "Al Riyadh" always gives the plays positive reviews. One of the most recent pieces, which was performed in July at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh, dealt with domestic violence. Although there were signs posted in the lobby that no photographs were permitted during women's performances, the play was broadcast on Saudi state television. The Arts & Culture pages of "Al Riyadh" even showed some of the actresses and the director without veils.

Play about the pre-Islamic poet Labid staged during the Okaz Festival in Saudi Arabia (photo: private)
Cultural about-turn: pre-Islamic, Orientalist and Western influences were recently showcased at the Okaz Festival. "The Western Orientalists presented - usually rather odious figures to Arab conservatives - demonstrate impressive erudition in the play. The respect they were accorded in Taif can arguably be extended to the West as a whole," writes Croitoru

Okaz Festival

In early August, given the rising popularity of women's theatre, which is still only presented to female audiences, the newspaper advocated "theatrical performances for the whole family" – a possible sign that joint visits to the theatre by men and women may soon be allowed in Saudi Arabia. This cultural about-turn, of which Saudi theatre is just one example, was impossible to overlook in August at the annual Okaz Festival in Taif near Mecca.

During that event, which draws on the region′s mediaeval tradition of poetry festivals, a one-hour play was performed that starts with the legendary pre-Islamic Arabic poet Labid appearing on stage as a young man and reciting one of his works (tradition has it that Labid only later converted to Islam, a theme that was notably not addressed here).

Afterward, dancers clad in Western dress swept onto the stage accompanied by swing music, heralding the appearance of the actual protagonists of the play: the Lebanese-American writer al Ameen Rihani (1876–1940), his Arab colleague Nofal, and the famous French Orientalists Charles Huber and Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, who asked the Rihani character about a poem fragment by Labid.

The author of the piece, the Saudi playwright Saleh Zamanan, then dispatched all four characters on a journey through time. On the way, they encountered the older Labid, who philosophised about poetry and completed the fragment of his poem from younger years.The Western Orientalists presented here, usually rather odious figures to Arab conservatives, demonstrate impressive erudition in the play. The respect they were accorded in Taif can arguably be extended to the West as a whole, which Saudi Arabia is trying to emulate culturally with increasing zeal.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2015

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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