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Great strides in Saudi Arabia

Most people have a vision of Saudi Arabia as a vast desert of sand and little else. But the wave of visitors expected to arrive on the back of the new tourist visa will find a thriving culture that is as diverse in its language and customs as it is in its stunning topography

Date preparation
Date preparation

Visitors will find a Saudi national identity rooted in arts, food, clothes as well centuries-old heritage and tradition found in its dances, poetry, theatre and crafts.

They will also find Saudis whose lives have been enriched with the return of concerts, films and theatrical performances that are themselves coming to the attention of a wider international audience. 

Movie poster for Wadjda, the first movie to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a female director – the talented and ground-breaking Haifaa al-Mansour
Movie poster for Wadjda, the first movie to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a female director – the talented and ground-breaking Haifaa al-Mansour

If culture is the cornerstone of a nation’s civilisation then Saudi Arabia has firmly embraced that sentiment. From a thriving film industry, avant-garde art scene to writers and museums, the country is intent on rapidly building its talent.

Cinemas have opened for the first time in three decades and are flourishing. The nascent film industry has built on the award-winning success of Wadjda, the first movie to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a female director – the talented and ground-breaking Haifaa al-Mansour. 

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This year thousands flocked to open-air cinema screenings and many more are expected at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah next March. With Hussain Currimbhoy from the legendary Sundance Film Festival assisting the event as artistic director, it could set Saudi Arabia film on the road to greater achievements. 

By focusing on the advancement of travel and tourism while maintaining its own distinct heritage and traditions, Saudi Arabia is unlocking opportunities for cultural exchange and economic development.

Saudi singer Dalia al-Mubarak performs at the Ministry of Culture’s launch event in Riyadh 2019
Saudi singer Dalia al-Mubarak performs at the Ministry of Culture’s launch event in Riyadh 2019

A programme of substantial cultural renewal has been undertaken over the past year, reinvigorating Saudi arts, heritage and culture. Across Saudi Arabia there is an untapped talent of poets, architects, dancers and actors who will come to the fore in the coming decade.

Under Vision 2030, the government’s roadmap for the future, a raft of cultural opportunities has opened up with a financial initiative led by the new Ministry of Culture.

Saudi “Season”
Saudi “Season”

By 2030 new museums, theatres and festivals will have been founded with opportunities to participate. Culture will be part of daily life and is expected to contribute three per cent to GDP in the next decade. 

High among the Kingdom’s cultural initiatives is the introduction of the 11 “Saudi Seasons”, the idea of a major cultural push on a particular city or area each quarter. This summer the Red Sea city of Jeddah was chosen to host the first Season with a programme of events in music, art and culture. 

Boxing is just one of the many sports being showcased in Saudi Arabia
Boxing is just one of the many sports being showcased in Saudi Arabia

Live concerts, theatrical performances, art exhibitions, stand-up comedy and major sporting events have been laid on for both locals and visitors. 

The festival explored the modern to the traditional, hosting pop concerts with the Backstreet Boys along with the “chaotic” acrobatics of Le Teatro Circus. Saudi folklore show parades and performances from local artists complemented lively pop-up restaurants and entertainments along Jeddah’s waterfront. 

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Young architects are being encouraged to make their own contributions to Saudi Arabia’s evolving cities, hoping to create the next iconic landmark such as the Jeddah Tower and Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower. This will be enhanced by cooperation with the Ministry of Education support in developing a scholarship programme in arts and culture to encourage talent and develop skills across Saudi society. Aspiring photographers will be able to learn and train to follow in the footsteps of award-winning Tasneem Al Sultan, a successful photographer based in the Kingdom. As well as new cultural prizes, Saudi’s art scene will be further enhanced with overseas artists allowed to work in the kingdom with a special new business visa. 

Saudi Arabia’s nascent fashion industry will receive a significant boost next month when homegrown talent showcase their style. As part of the Riyadh Seasons, Fashion Futures will see global aficionados jet in to give a series of talks and workshops. Students studying the new fashion course at Jeddah’s Al Hekma University can now look forward to a bright future. 

Fashion is one of the 16 sectors that the Ministry of Culture is seeking to develop, from museums, poetry, literature and performing arts. It will be helped with the launch in the coming months of a culture magazine. The perception of Saudi Arabia as a land of endless sand is set to change to one of perpetual culture.

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