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Saudi Arabia grows ‘soft power’ through art

Alia Al-Senussi ’03 MA’04 talks Saudi politics amid international controversy over journalist’s death

“‘I’m an independent journalist using his pen for the good of his country,’” said Visiting Scholar in Middle East Studies Alia Al-Senussi ’03 MA’04, quoting the murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi as an opening to her lecture yesterday, “The New Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom Embraces Soft Power.”

“We can extrapolate (Khashoggi’s words) to the work of many artists and many cultural practitioners who are currently in Saudi Arabia … (who) believe very strongly in their patriotism and the work that they do,” she added.

Arriving amid international outrage directed toward the Saudi government’s investigation into Khashoggi’s death, Al-Senussi’s lecture framed Saudi Arabia’s recent production and importation of art as forms of political “soft power.”

During the lecture, Al-Senussi said that soft power, which includes policies such as diplomacy and trade agreements, occurs alongside traditional metrics of a country’s power. But soft power is “completely immeasurable. … (It’s) cultural, ideological and institutional.”

Previously, Saudi Arabia’s soft power was purely religious, as it exported a “certain version of Islam,” Al-Senussi said. It did not reveal the particulars of Saudi society or show “what was happening among the Saudi people.” But after the occurrence of critical events such the political ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s practice of soft power through arts and culture expanded.

With these developments, Al-Senussi said the “cultural industry in Saudi offered a new social contract based on this idea of a liberalized state-society relationship.”

Specifically, Saudi art and artists now feature in “conversations that happen in society,” Al-Senussi said. “Many of these young artists … are not just artists who … practice art all day long, but are people who have an artistic tendency … and decided they wanted to be a part of a cultural conversation,” she said.

Additionally, the country is now considering what its “heritage and tourism will (not only) illustrate to the West but also within the country and the Islamic world,” she said. Recently, the government also opened its borders to Western cinema, with “Black Panther” being the first American film to release in the country.

This ambition of greater cultural soft power has coalesced in the Saudi government’s recently implemented Vision 2030 program, Al-Senussi said. “It was the very first time that Saudi Arabia has embarked on a cultural program aimed within the country as well as without,” she added. As a result of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia established a Ministry of Culture in addition to “cultural programs, museums and …  a cultural conversation for artists within the country.”

To create this national conversation, Vision 2030 tasked the new General Entertainment Authority with developing a “clear vision for the evolution of the entertainment industry,” which the government perceived to be “an instrument of nation-building,” Al-Senussi said. Part of the Authority’s mandate involves “organizing recreational centers that comport with the customs and traditions of the country,” she added.

“In many ways, it’s also a legalizing body. … Almost all activities that require public gathering (must) go to this body to gain permission,” she said.

In addition to projects explicitly sponsored by the government, private and corporate patrons have played key roles in using art to develop Saudi Arabia’s soft power, a trend seen across the Gulf states, Al-Senussi said.

For instance, the multinational investment bank UBS recently sponsored 21,39, the annual Jeddah-based arts and culture festival organized by the Saudi Arts Council, a non-governmental organization.

“What’s happening in the Gulf is this constant meshing and interlocking of public, private and corporate” patronage of arts and culture, she said.

Though governmental co-opting of art implicates artists within a broader state structure, Al-Senussi said this did not mean “they are fully controlled (or) fully a part of the state machinery.”

But despite these claims of Saudi artists’ independence, their works’ presence on a global platform is being tested in light of the international community’s outrage toward Khashoggi’s murder

Addressing this development, Al-Senussi said she believed that international museums’ “knee-jerk reaction to cancel all of these shows (and) partnerships does not benefit anyone. Particularly, it does not benefit the ones who are being hurt the most,” who are the artists.

International communities must maintain faith in “the abilities of art and artists to create a very separate conversation from the governments under whom they happen to live,” she added.

The event also included an opportunity for audience members to ask Al-Senussi questions. Referencing the ongoing “migration of talent” and the extended detention of artists within autocratic countries, David Kebudi  ’19 asked Al-Senussi which path she saw Saudi Arabia following, given the country’s grim presence in international news.

In response to his question, Al-Senussi said she couldn’t give a definitive answer. “I can’t predict, because I never would have thought that I would be giving this talk in this circumstance,” she added.

Lara Fares, who attended the event, stressed Saudi art’s facilitation of progress within the nation’s broader political environment and said she was most impressed by the fact that “there are some artists living in the country that are able to speak freely through their art. To me, that is a huge step.”



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