Cash crunch cripples arts and culture in Saudi society

Visitors look at an artwork during Saudi Arabia’s first public show of contemporary art entitled “We need to talk” at al-Furusia Marina in Jeddah, January 23, 2012. (Reuters)

There are 16 branches of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and the Arts in various regions of the kingdom, all of which are finding it increasingly difficult to carry out their day to day activities due to a financial crunch. Several officials and artists belonging to the society said the allocated budget of SR13 million by the Ministry of Culture and Information is insufficient to run the organization, according to a report in al-Sharq newspaper.

The ministry’s budget for the society sparked a debate among members of the society and artists on the government’s support to promote culture and arts in the kingdom as well as to ensure welfare of cultural figures, artists and writers. While announcing the society’s budget, Abdullah al-Jasser, deputy minister of culture and information, advised the society’s branches to rationalize their spending and utilize funds in a more efficient way.

Commenting on the issue, Sultan al-Bazie, chairman of the society’s board of directors, said al-Jasser was well aware of the steps that have been taken by the society to rationalize spending.

“All of the branches of the society have taken necessary procedures to save money through rationalized spending. But they are facing a grave financial crisis mainly because budgetary allocations have not been increased in over five years,” he said.

Al-Bazie said the society plans to overcome the crisis by finding private donors to sponsor a wide variety of cultural and artistic activities. “We hope that this move to forge a partnership with the private sector would enable the society and its branches to play an active role in providing an opportunity to young Saudi artists to develop and display their talents. This will come in the form of a qualitative partnership with leading firms in the private sector as part of their social responsibility programs.”

Noted playwright Fahd Radda said it is impossible for 16 branches of the society to meet the annual expenses for rent, salaries and costs of hosting various cultural activities and stage performances with its current budget of SR13 million ($35 million). “Therefore, there is no point in talking about rationalization of spending. We are speaking about stark realities of our plight, and therefore we are not in a position to visualize and implement any future projects,” he said. The society and its branches are struggling to carry out their functions, which include looking after the welfare of Saudi artists and working toward raising their cultural, artistic and social standing.

Ibrahim al-Harthy, another playwright, said the deputy minister’s statement deepened members’ wounds. “We actually expected him to take steps to address our problems and direct the concerned agencies to increase budgetary allocations for the branches of the society. Most drama troupes have created their own funds with contributions from personal accounts of its members,” he said, adding that Saudi artists have to struggle a lot compared to their counterparts in other countries.

“At a time when the kingdom is witnessing an unprecedented economic boom and all round growth, it is essential to have an intellectual and cultural awakening by encouraging arts and culture,” he said while urging the ministry to take measures aimed at promoting the society’s branches and their activities.

Ahmed al-Sarwi, director of the society’s branch in Abha, said serious attempts have to be made to get an increase in the annual financial allocation from the government to the society’s branches because of the increasing expenses needed to run them. He said the society and its branches have been forced to take austerity measures due to insufficient funding. “Rationalization of spending can be applicable only if there is a sound financial position. But the society and its branches are facing acute shortage of financing even to carry out their activities with minimum financing,” he said while urging the ministry to allocate more funds.

Echoing the same view, Ali al-Ghuwainem, director of the society’s branch in al-Ahsa, said in order to continue conducting cultural activities, the society needs to know it has the required funding. “We are living in a country rich with various cultural and artistic trends. I don’t think that austerity will be an ideal solution to demonstrate our innovations in cultural and artistic fields,” he said.

“The younger generation is the major beneficiary of cultural and artistic activities. Therefore, it is essential to have enough government funding for the initiatives and programs aimed at developing their talents and skills,” he added.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on May 2, 2014.

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