Saudi Arabia: Janadriyah Festival of Culture

A population ruled by fear

As was revealed at the culture festival in Riyadh, the Kingdom finds itself in a precarious position – not least because women are still excluded from podium discussions. Open debate about politics and religion did, however, take place at the fringes. Stefan Weidner reports from Riyadh

Riyadh is different to the other capital cities of the Gulf. They have little space and they build upwards. Riyadh, by contrast, is annexing the desert and spreading out, affording detached houses in the city centre. And the few high-rises that do exist are more architecturally appealing than is usual in the Emirates. But you don't see people on the Saudi capital’s streets any more. The pedestrian is an extinct species in Riyadh, its habitat destroyed. You can't get anywhere without a car.

When I attempt to walk anyway, on my last day there, I am promptly arrested and escorted to my destination in a police car. Luckily I am able to identify myself as one of the Saudi National Guard’s guests of honour. They are putting on the Janadriyah Festival outside the city gates, a unique combination of trade show and funfair – and the only form of public mass entertainment in Saudi Arabia, if you don’t count the Mecca pilgrimages. 

Quality ″made in Germany″

This year, Germany is the festival’s guest of honour and has thus been saddled with an extremely thankless task. What are you supposed to do at a festival in a country where all public performances are unwelcome; a country whose countless human rights abuses have made any contact with it as compromising as if it were a leper? Ask the economy: even if, as in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, all dialogue fizzles out, there's still always something you can sell to each other.

As a result, the guest-of-honour presence here (largely funded by this economy) has become a display of German products, glued together with some (sometimes high-quality) crafts, folklore and facade. The facades in this case are to be found inside the German pavilion and consist of walls plastered with gigantic, full-scale photos showing every possible kind of building facade to be found in Germany, from half-timbered houses to a financial district.

The old marketplace inside the German pavilion (photo: MAR/Zeissig)
Focus on German culture and architecture: in a 2,000-metre square pavilion the German Foreign Office, the "Deutschland – Land der Ideen" local initiative, the Goethe-Institut and numerous business partners present Germany as an attractive cultural, scientific and business location. The pavilion concept aims to show visitors how Germany will counter the challenges of the future with innovative solutions and ideas

In amongst this, there is a Goethe-Institut stand with taster language courses, printed information and friendly, Arabic-speaking employees. And there too is also a stand from the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, which a few days later will open a fine exhibition in the National Museum, displaying (as if they came from Berlin) those pieces from the Saudi museum depot that the Saudis don't dare show themselves, such as the gravestones from Mecca and Medina, over a thousand years old, which were all said to have been destroyed by Wahhabis supportive of the state two hundred years ago: they regarded visiting the graves and honouring the dead as polytheism. 

In cloying praise of the King

To be fair, you have to admit that the German pavilion is a great success. But that is the very reason the stands from the technology and luxury sectors of the economy seem so negative, looking like foreign bodies here. If at least they had managed to gain sponsorship from a German bakery, given that Kamps (“The German Bäckerei”, sic!) is about to open a branch in Riyadh – or if they’d allowed FC Bayern to have a fan shop there, its jersey having been worn by one of the camel riders honoured by the king on the opening night.

But although single men, to whom the display of German technology probably appeals, are denied entry after the second full day of the festival, the Saudis stream into the hall. Men are then only allowed to enter the show ground as "families", accompanied by women and children. Let nobody say the absurd division of the sexes in Saudi Arabia only disadvantages women.

However, Janadriyah (unnoticed by the German journalists who have travelled there) is more than the funfair-like festival showground that all the media are reporting on. In the form of a week-long conference in the city-centre King Faisal Conference Centre, it is also a forum for exchanges between the kingdom's elite. Top-class intellectuals from other Arab countries are invited and this year, because of the guest of honour status, a few Germans have been invited as well, though apart from the author of these lines, nobody has taken up the National Guard’s invitation.

Winner of this year′s camel race at the Janadriyah Festival of Culture in Riyadh (photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa)
A victory for tradition: winner of the annual 18-kilometre-long camel race held on 3 February 2016 during the Janadriyah Festival. Germany is the guest of honour at this year′s culture festival staged near Riyadh

But when, after two days of cloying praise of the king, anyone in their right mind was regretting having come, it suddenly began to get interesting. Those on the podium, now at pains to emphasise the extremely precarious position the kingdom currently finds itself in, at once began raising a whole range of issues. The Iranian arch-enemy (in the form of Shia allies) was known to have occupied four Arab capitals. They meant Sanaa, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut. To the West, Iran was pretending to respect international borders. But in the region around Saudi Arabia, it was exporting the revolution and undermining stability through Shia agitation.

Women excluded from discussions

This keynote was echoed in conversations on the conference fringe. On the bus, two cultivated older gentlemen clashed with each other and suddenly did some plain speaking, which everyone else was scrupulously avoiding. The Sunni from Kuwait, a secular intellectual, accused the Shias of insulting the Prophet’s comrades in their textbooks out of a pure desire for provocation. The notable Shia from the east of Saudi Arabia firmly disagreed with this and demanded proof, saying that for his part, there were mosques where as a Shia he was no longer allowed to pray, which the Kuwaiti loudly dismissed as an unsubstantiated claim.

The altercation, soon brought to an end with a handshake, happened en route to one of the discussions that took place every evening, usually involving thirty to forty people. These turned out to be the real point of the Janadriyah festival, though this fact was concealed from the public. Each moderated by a host, often on a topic announced in advance, the discussions cover the problems of the country and the region. Unfortunately, there are no women at these conversations, either – and not because it’s forbidden; it is quite simply what people are used to.

Two exiled Iranian journalists who have travelled from London are the guests this evening. They speak a beautiful, Persian-accented Arabic and explain that, although they themselves oppose Tehran, the Saudis are also making every effort to foment unrest in Iran and stir up Arabic-speaking Iranians against their regime. Even so, these two say they see themselves as Iranians and fought bravely against Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war.

Demonstrators storm and torch the Saudi embassy in Tehran on 2 January 2016 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M.-R. Nadimi)
Tense relations: the Saudi government broke off diplomatic ties with Iran as, at the beginning of January, rioting demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The protests were triggered by the execution of the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Sunni Saudi Arabia

Lowest common denominator

There are also some younger people in this group of former ministers, experienced journalists, lawyers and academics. While the Iranians are arguing with an Arab nationalist, who compares the situation of the Iranian Arabs to that of the Palestinians, a student starts up a conversation with me about Hegel's philosophy of law. He's sure hardly anyone in this room has read it. How can sovereign statehood develop under these conditions, with regard to religion and the powerful clans here? You have to read Hobbes, Hegel, but above all, Carl Schmitt.

This longing for a strong state, which also becomes clear in other conversations and presentations, is not surprising in view of the process of disintegration in the region and the centrifugal forces that threaten Saudi Arabia from within. "Decision and decisiveness" is the motto on the posters plastered everywhere and quoted by every speaker, the words King Salman has made into the motto of his reign, promptly starting a war with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But after almost a year, the war against the tribal warriors has still not been decided, as some people have started to point out.

The Saudis’ freshly-announced readiness to deploy ground troops against IS is welcomed in the discussion groups. This affords an opportunity to combat Iran in Syria at the same time: next to Iran, "Islamic State" and Islamist terrorism is regarded as the greatest danger to Saudi Arabia. It is the fact that the Saudi Wahhabi state ideology and IS's world view are so very similar that makes the danger of IS infecting the Saudi people so great.

The poorer Saudis in particular have already been indoctrinated by the religious scholars here. It is also these poorer people who are already suffering under the low oil prices. While petrol has become cheaper for us, Saudi Arabia has instituted a fifty percent rise in petrol prices in reaction to the falling price of oil (though of course petrol was very cheap there to start with).

Campaign for the release of Raif Badawi and Abu al-Khair in front of the Saudi embassy in Berlin (photo: Deutsche Welle)
"People can’t stand each other; they complain about the deadlock in reforms, corruption, the segregation of the sexes and the capriciousness of the reactionary justice system, which keeps making an example of reformers with judgements against activists and artists like Ashraf Fayadh and Raif Badawi – but ultimately the complainants are all in the same boat, profiting from the unequal distribution of wealth and not wanting to capsize it with progress," writes Stefan Weidner

Anti-regime graffiti

For the time being, the war in Yemen and the disagreement with Iran has united the otherwise quarrelling ranks, regions and layers of society in Saudi Arabia. Very few people still dare to question the dominant rhetoric. This shows how closely the fate of even the more progressive elements of the Saudi elite is tied to the monarchy and the statehood of Saudi Arabia, which is held together by the king alone.

People can’t stand each other; they complain about the deadlock in reforms, corruption, the segregation of the sexes and the capriciousness of the reactionary justice system, which keeps making an example of reformers with judgements against activists and artists like Ashraf Fayadh and Raif Badawi – but ultimately the complainants are all in the same boat, profiting from the unequal distribution of wealth and not wanting to capsize it with progress.

The high culture and Western education that I encounter again and again among the participants at the Janadriyah conference are phenomena of a prosperous elite, founded more on status and names than on money. Being a guest there feels like moving among the enlightened nobility on the eve of the French Revolution. Everyone makes fun of the king and knows better than him. But if he falls, they will fall with him: what comes after will most likely not be the Enlightenment, but terrorism perpetrated by bearded sans-culottes.

The police guard that interrupted my stroll had been informed by several motorists that there was a foreigner there, busy taking photos. I had been honked at more than once. The drivers believed they had to protect the state from a walking, picture-taking foreigner.

They were probably wise to do so. Before having to show what I had been taking photos of, I did manage to delete the pictures of graffiti criticising the regime, which had piqued my interest. They had been painted over, but with any luck I would have been able to decipher them on the screen at home. Whatever may have been written there, the true ruler of Saudi Arabia in 2016 is not King Salman, but naked fear.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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