For many years, I was part of a group of Saudi academics, writers, and people engaged in all kinds of cultural work, who would head to Arab capitals such as Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Casablanca, as well as various Gulf capitals, to attend conferences or seminars or to participate in festivals.
Throughout, we would compare what we have in Saudi Arabia with what our Arab brothers have, and our conversations would revolve around the lack of a Ministry of Culture or a similar body. When it was decided that a Ministry of Culture would be established and merged with the Ministry of Information, we smiled. However, it was half a smile, as half of what we aspired to had been achieved, only half of our dreams had been achieved. The dream was to see the establishment of an independent Ministry of Culture that would bring all the institutions together and provide serious and dedicated support to creatives, be they writers, artists or thinkers.
The cultural scene in the Kingdom is rich and extremely diverse. To those who do not know much about it, I say that, like many Arab scenes in particular, it is divided into three sectors:
The public sector, the private sector, and what is now known as the third sector. The first encompasses government-provided services, be they provided directly or indirectly, to cultural activities. The private sector encompasses institutions, publishing houses, literary salons and art galleries.
As for the third, it is represented in three sides: literary clubs, the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, and the media in both its traditional (the press, radio and television) and new (social media) forms. All of them produce a culture. Literary clubs are numbered at around 17, and the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts has 16 branches, which are spread across the Kingdom. The third space has been playing a pivotal role in developing cultural life in the Kingdom since the 1970s, and its institutions have nurtured intellectual, literary and artistic production more than any others over the past half-century. It is a third sector or space because its institutions are somewhere in the middle between being government and private sector institutions, and the former thus receive some support from the government and some donors from the business sector and others.
As for social media, it is still difficult to discern the impact it has had and is having, but all indications point to that impact being profound and extremely significant.
That was the case until 2018 and the issuance of a royal decree establishing a Ministry of Culture - that is, separating culture from the media and making the Ministry of Culture an independent institutional state entity. Here, those in the Kingdom working within the cultural field in all its stripes could broaden their smiles and see a different future on the horizon. Indeed, three years on, the future is different. I used the phrase “broaden their smiles,” which indicates that they should be optimistic about what is to come, and this optimism was indeed justified because the new institution operates under a genuinely different vision, one that differs from even what Saudi intellectuals had expected or aspired to.
The Ministry of Culture has a different vision, and its management and organization of culture differ from that which prevails at the regional and Arab levels. It is not a copy of other ministries of culture. Rather, it drew from experiences around the world that UNESCO had played a role in shaping. The ministry includes 11 commissions that encompass the various cultural sectors, some of which no one expected would be included. As well as literature, translation, theater, music and the plastic arts, it encompasses spaces for forms of cultural production that had not been familiar or thought of, like fashion and culinary arts. The eleven commissions cover 16 sectors. Literature, translation and publishing were covered by one commission, and the performing arts sector (such as dances and other folk arts) is part of the theater sector. It is worth noting, here, that the management of these commissions differs sharply from that of government bodies, with the formation of commissions organizing and supporting particular activities bringing something novel to the table.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the details of how the ministry and its commissions operate, we can say, generally, that these commissions carry out their tasks with the framework of internal rules and regulations overseen by boards of directors and executive committees, and through contractors and associations that work in culture. Whoever wants to hold a cultural event, lecture or symposium, and wants support for it must reach an agreement with a ministry-supported association, and whoever wants to publish a book or a translation of a text has to reach an agreement with a publisher before receiving support to write or translate, and so on. The bodies do not deal with the public directly. Instead, they work with intermediary institutions. With this approach, the ministry, with its various bodies, aspires to leave bureaucracy behind and avert administrative corruption.
In all of this, there is a lot to smile about. I say this as someone involved in what is going on, observing and taking part in it, though only partly through my membership in the Board of Directors of the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission. It is chaired by his excellency the Minister of Culture and includes a number of women and men stakeholders, as well as a CEO tasked with managing operations alongside a large team that is also composed of both men and women. It has a work environment that had never been seen before in a public institution, as there is an abundance of space for productive administrative engagement.
However, culture, as is well known, is not created by institutions, regardless of their number, variation and capacities. Institutions are incubators that can support cultural production or not support it, but they never produce culture. It is individuals, whether they work individually or collectively, who produce works of culture, literature, arts and thought. The accumulation of cultural works that the Kingdom has seen since it was founded by King Abdulaziz in the 1920s would not have been witnessed without individual efforts at the end of the day, those of the pioneers and those who succeeded them. And these efforts would have yielded nothing if it weren’t for a number of foundations and frameworks, which are the sum of the values that they believed in and that crystallized through engagement with local communities first, the Arab world second, and then the rest of the world. Belief in a creed, a homeland, and a common identity are perhaps at the forefront of these values.
The future whose contours were outlined by the major development plan. known as Vision 2030, which is being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, will not come about culturally if it is not founded on these values. We will not see such a future if individual creatives, intellectuals and cultural producers are not given a space that they play a role in shaping and in which they have the chance to work under suitable and comfortable conditions that ensure moral and material support. The fact that this plan includes the establishment of a Ministry of Culture that is supported with human and material resources is a strong indication that, God willing, we are moving straight in that direction. However, some things that must be taken into account in supporting this trend and maintaining balance:
The first: Perceiving culture to be an intellectual and creative pinnacle that one aspires to achieve through various channels and means. It is a pinnacle insofar as it is the realization of our humanity and what elevates human existence on this earth. This means not succumbing to the temptation of populism or lowering quality standards to appease some producers and consumers regardless of their number. It is true that the opposite extreme to this, i.e., elitism, has many disadvantages, foremost of which is the abandonment of the popular base and condescending to it. However, the alternative is not to privilege quantity over quality, but it is cultural work that continuously strives for better, supporting works that meet these standards and encouraging those who are not up to par to meet those standards.
There are two aspects to every cultural work, and the work could reach a high standard in one aspect and a lower standard in the other. Philosophy, which is considered the most sublime form of cultural output, may descend towards becoming, for some, a matter of mere opinions about life. It could also be elevated to address the most arduous and consequential questions and issues in our material and intellectual lives. This is also the case for the fields of science, literature, and the various arts. Top-down standards for such things cannot be imposed, nor should they be. Instead, they must be consulted and adopted as goals for cultural work, be it governmental, private, or other.
Second: Nurture the Arabic language, as it is the largest - and the primary - medium and incubator for cultural production. And enforce official decisions that promote Arabic’s vital and essential role in this production. That includes improving Arabic learning in the educational sphere and working to promote its adoption in all contexts, including academia, the media, business and commerce, etc. Conversely, we are witnessing a marked decline of the Arabic language, among the younger generations especially, with excessive commercial use of English for marketing and to draw audiences. Moreover, many activities and events, including official ones, embrace foreign languages and see no harm in adopting them to gain more exposure or profit. Arabic is the future of our culture, simply because the culture we have is an Arab culture.
Third: Expand the scope of freedom of expression and production and mitigate fears and sensitivities surrounding what people say and the content produced. Those fears and excessive sensitivities have obscured some of our most important cultural productions, as our cultural history has seen many individuals who opted to travel and live abroad, taking their cultural works with them. For this reason, publishing houses and printing presses throughout the Arab world are brimming with writings and productions by Saudis, be they intellectuals, scholars, writers, or artists. Thankfully, there are many indications of positive changes in this regard. Nonetheless, we need more to make the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the major incubator for its people’s cultural production, as well as that of others.
Fourth: Consider culture as an investment environment and thus a source of national wealth in the broad sense, beyond finances and extending to minds. In his first meeting with Saudi intellectuals in the city of Jeddah, the Crown Prince emphasized this aspect when he said that the ambition is for culture to become a national source of revenue, which we all hope for. Achieving this requires collective effort and the adoption of a vision that renders the Kingdom the primary destination for intellectuals from the Arab and Islamic world, as well as attracting the world’s intellectuals on a broader scale.
One of the paths towards this outcome is the expansion of the space for publishing, not only for Saudis but for others as well, by making the Kingdom attractive to the publishing industry. One of the means for this is facilitating the procedures required to distribute books and hold cultural or scientific conferences and symposiums. As such, the cities and regions of Saudi Arabia can become a home and destination for productive and creative minds from across the world – of course, within the framework of well-defined legal controls and values. The recent inauguration of the most important book fair in the Arab world and the conclusion of two major conferences for philosophy and translation are undoubtedly steps in the right direction, and more must follow.
Fifth: In light of the current project to develop the cultural incubators that have historically been the most significant, namely literary clubs and culture and arts societies, it is important for support to go beyond its previous levels and for their historical heritage to safeguard and preserve, even if they take new forms, their active role in cultural development.
Sixth: Urging academic and research institutions to contribute further to the production of culture accessible to the general public rather than only to academic or scientific experts. Of course, universities must be mentioned here, and they must be urged to integrate into the cultural and scientific scenes of society at large, breaking with the academic isolation that many of them unfortunately currently adopt. Universities have been active forces in the Arab renaissance since its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, and they have played a pivotal role in the Kingdom’s cultural history. However, they have retreated from it in recent decades. It is important to restore the role of universities in popular culture because it is impossible to imagine a real cultural movement or a vibrant creative future without universities being involved. They are the great incubators of science, thought and literature and the most important strongholds for enlightenment, awareness and development.
These, in my view, are the contours of what can be done to arrive at a bright future for culture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They are the continuation of constructive steps that have already been taken with the aim of elevating our culture to higher pinnacles in a homeland that is more expansive and inclusive.