Saudi culture is experiencing a modern renaissance – one driven by the sector’s central role in Vision 2030, its economic efficacy, and most importantly its intrinsic value as an anchor of Saudi identity and history.
The Kingdom’s ambitious reform plan – Vision 2030 – aims to diversify the Saudi economy and transform its society. The rapid pace of growth and revitalization in the cultural sector is meant to match the Vision’s ambition and unleash the unmet potential of Saudi culture as a potent force of cross-sectoral socio-economic development.
For over 50 years, a number of institutional bodies have built and sustained Saudi Arabia’s cultural institutions. The establishment of the Ministry of Culture in 2018 marked the start of a new era of Saudi cultural transformation—an era in which cultural policies, institutions, and creative industries are recognized as indispensable elements of national development.
To that end, and under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, 11 specialized commissions – each corresponding to a sub-sector of culture encompassing fashion, film, museums, and even culinary arts, to name a few – were created to effectively organize, develop, and manage the sector at large
But what makes culture such a potent force of development? Isn’t it merely supplemental compared to more critical economic and social policies? How and why is culture so central to the Kingdom’s ambitious plans to diversify and successfully transition into a knowledge-based economy?
Data provides a sufficiently convincing answer: $2.25 trillion in annual global revenue is attributed to cultural and creative sectors, while global exports amount to over $250 billion, according to UNESCO estimates.
These sectors also provide over 30 million jobs worldwide, especially among the young, with cultural and creative industries employing more people aged 15-29 than any other sector. This figure relays the pivotal role a flourishing cultural sector can play in empowering the Kingdom’s ambitious youthful majority. It is therefore no surprise that the sector is projected to make up over 10 percent of global GDP in the near future.
Bringing culture to forefront of global conversation
Saudi Arabia has sought to bring these sectors to the helm of the global economic discussion, and included culture in the G20 agenda for the first time in the forum’s 21-year history.
On November 4, 2020 under Saudi Arabia’s presidency, G20 culture ministers came together to discuss sustainable development, heritage preservation, and how a robust cultural economy can accelerate and enhance the post-COVID-19 global economic recovery.
The Saudi-led inaugural joint meeting for culture ministers is just the latest in the Kingdom’s cultural success story. In a little over two years, the Ministry of Culture has exceeded initial expectations in both size and magnitude with a tripartite vision based on promoting culture as a way of life, as a contributor to economic growth, and as an opportunity for international exchange.
While this top-down approach has been successful, the Ministry has coupled it with bottom-up empowerment, through its Cultural Development Fund, dubbed Nomu, which translates to growth in Arabic. Nomu is well-positioned to support cultural development by empowering local talent to improve the quality and quantity of creative cultural output.
The magnitude of Saudi Arabia’s cultural transformation is best relayed through data: In 2019 alone, the Kingdom’s cultural domain witnessed more than 5,000 books translated into Arabic, 161 Saudi novels published, 11 Saudi universities offering fashion design programs, 101 Saudi-produced films, 300 international awards won by Saudi theater through foreign participation, 255 art exhibitions successfully executed, eight Saudi projects winning the international Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and seven Saudi cultural items registered on UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
These achievements culminated most recently in the launch of the first Saudi Fashion Incubation Program, the issuance of the first two licenses for music institutes in the Kingdom, and election of Saudi Arabia to UNESCO’s Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage.
COVID-19 and the Kingdom’s culture
The COVID-19 pandemic has done little to hamper the rapid pace of Saudi Arabia’s cultural transformation. Instead, the sector looked inward for inspiration, and found no shortage of creative talent.
Through the Ministry’s “Culture in Isolation” initiative, ambition, resilient optimism, and adaptability – values inherent to Saudi culture – were put on full display as Saudi artists showcased their ability to successfully organize and execute virtual art exhibitions, digital culinary programs, and e-learning platforms for Arabic calligraphy and poetry.
Quantitative metrics and indices can only go so far – beyond the sector’s direct contribution to GDP, culture and creative industries trigger positive spill-over in other sectors of the economy such as tourism, education, infrastructure, and even public health, deeming its relative impact far more substantive than economic estimates suggest.
A flourishing cultural sector unleashes the creative potential of an entire populace, strengthens national identity, improves quality of life, promotes social cohesion, and helps forge stronger links with nations around the world through cultural diplomacy. The Kingdom is currently witnessing an unprecedented a full-scale cultural transformation wherein bottom-up energy and authenticity is empowered by vision and resources from the top-down.
This is a cultural renaissance in which Saudi creatives are offered an avenue of expression whereby tradition and modernity coalesce to form a rich, self-sustaining cultural ecosystem directly linked to national development for generations to come.
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