Art in the forbidden zone: Inside the Saudi cultural awakening

Taylor Luck
The work titled “Sorry/I Forgive You,” created by Libyan Canadian artist Arwa Aboun. It’s displayed at the contemporary art gallery at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

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When Westerners hear “Saudi Arabia,” many may think of conservative Islam, oil, and more recently, the reckless politics of its crown prince. Music and arts probably lie at the bottom of the list, if they make it at all.

Over the past year, however, Saudi Arabia has been trying to change this perception as the leadership reverses a decades-old ban on cultural outlets and attempts to open up the kingdom to art, music, cinema, and theater.

Why We Wrote This

Behind the Saudi government’s encouragement of arts and culture that have long been taboo is the desire to create a more well-rounded citizenry. It wants the next generation to be more innovative as the country transitions to a post-oil society.

The move bumps up against religious clerics whose dominance over Saudi society was undisputed for decades. But they have been marginalized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, as part of his plan to transform the country and its economy, seeks to create an entertainment industry, introduce art and music in schools, and nurture homegrown talent.

Many Saudis are already flocking to several private music academies. At the Music Home School of Art, imported instructors have taught hundreds of Riyadh residents, from would-be rappers to older Saudis who missed out on music lessons when they were young.

Ayman Tayseer is co-founder of the school. “You see a veiled mother in her 50s come in to enroll her daughter for classes, but really she is coming to take oud lessons herself!” he says.

“I said, I want some pandemonium!”

Lionel Richie is yelling as he stalks up and down the stage deep in the Saudi desert. 

Hundreds of robed men and women timidly sway side to side in their plush white leather chairs. A few clap to the beat. Like a sequined maestro desperately trying to wrench notes from a somnolent orchestra, Mr. Richie waves, points, claps, stomps, howls, and jokes – abruptly stopping several times during performing his 1980s funk songs to coach his audience how to ... groove. At times it was as if the American artist was talking them through their worst fears, reassuring everyone: It’ll be OK. No one will judge you. Go ahead and move. Do something.

Why We Wrote This

Behind the Saudi government’s encouragement of arts and culture that have long been taboo is the desire to create a more well-rounded citizenry. It wants the next generation to be more innovative as the country transitions to a post-oil society.

On the fourth song, one woman takes the plunge. She runs down the steps of the venue, right up to the orchestra pit by the stage, both arms raised in the air. A second woman quickly follows. Two friends rush from their seats in the wings. Five others join in.

By the time Mr. Richie gets to “Brick House,” a hit from his time with the Commodores in the 1970s, a third of the audience is up by the stage, twisting, turning, gyrating, singing in unison “She’s a brick house!” “She is mighty-mighty!” 

Inhibitions gone, social norms jettisoned, Saudis are letting loose, as if four decades of restrictions and foreboding have just been broken. At the end of his headlining performance at the Winter at Tantora festival in late February in the Saudi desert, Mr. Richie, drenched in sweat and wearing a satisfied grin, sums up the night in a single sentence: “Things here will never be the same again.” 

When Westerners hear “Saudi Arabia,” many may think of conservative Islam, oil, and more recently, the reckless politics of its crown prince. Music and arts probably lie at the bottom of the list, if they make it at all.

Yet over the past year, Saudi Arabia has been trying to change this perception both at home and abroad by parachuting in big names: Mr. Richie, Enrique Iglesias, Andrea Bocelli. While these high-profile acts in a glitzy mirrored concert hall in the desert may capture headlines and Instagram feeds, they are just one small part of sweeping changes underway in Saudi Arabia as the leadership reverses a decades-old ban on cultural outlets and attempts to open up the kingdom to art, music, cinema, and theater.

The move bumps up against the religious clerics, whose ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Islam prohibits live music, theater, and movies as “anti-Islamic” and whose dominance over Saudi society was undisputed for decades.

But over the past two years, these clerics have been marginalized and intimidated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, as part of his ambitious plan to transform the country and its economy, seeks to create an entertainment industry, introduce art and music in schools, and nurture homegrown talent.

Courtesy of The Royal Commission for Al-Ula
“Things here will never be the same again.” – Lionel Richie, the American R&B star of the 1970s and ‘80s (center left) during a performance in Saudi Arabia in late February, summing up changes sweeping the kingdom

While the new openness has been temporarily slowed by COVID-19, analysts expect it to pick up again as soon as social distancing eases and schools reopen. Officials here say the sweeping changes are designed to bring the kingdom into the 21st century and are a response to the demands of hundreds of thousands of Saudis who have studied in the West. Critics remain skeptical, claiming that the polarizing Crown Prince Mohammed is attempting to whitewash his image, tainted by the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi abroad and the jailing of human rights activists at home. Others chalk up the change to economic concerns. They claim as the drop in oil revenues and a costly war in Yemen force the Saudi government to end cradle-to-grave welfare and impose taxes, it is looking for a distraction – less bread and more circus.

No matter what the motivations, many Saudis say these dramatic cultural changes are real and undeniable – with implications for society for generations to come.

A musical past

For four decades, live music in Saudi Arabia was not just banned; it was policed. The feared mutawa, or vice police, patrolled the streets and arrested people for not being in the mosque during prayers, for being in mixed groups of men and women, and for improper dress. The authorities made music their business. They would shut down private concerts, raid music lessons, and confiscate keyboards and speakers.

“If the police saw you carrying an oud or guitar, they would snatch it and could smash it right in front of you,” says Khaled Abdulrahim, a musician and head of the Riyadh Lounge of Art, a music club that promotes Saudi musical heritage.

Mr. Abdulrahim is carrying his oud, a pear-shaped lutelike instrument, up the stairs to a friend’s office in a Riyadh tower for a lunch-break music session. He stops every few minutes and looks over his shoulder; he still can’t shake that feeling of someone lurking.

“If you were going to play at a friend’s house, you would have to wrap your oud in a blanket and hide it in the trunk of your car. It was contraband, like a drug,” he says.

It may be hard to imagine today, but Saudi Arabia was once rife with music and local artists. Each region and town had its own folk songs with particular beats, instruments, and scales. Women would sing on TV, and music was common at weddings and festivals. Music nights were even held in Mecca and Medina.

Everything changed in 1979. Local extremists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca, taking hostages and accusing the House of Saud of straying from its Islamic roots by inviting in Western culture. A deadly two-week siege and battle at Islam’s holiest site shook the nation, occurring months after Shiite clerics led a revolution in Iran. Sensing a sudden shift toward Islamicism and a potent mix of pulpit and politics, the Saudi royal family decided to shift to the right, pushing its own ultraconservative school of Wahhabi Islam to compete with Iran’s fiery, revolutionary interpretation of the faith.

Culture and art at home were the first sacrifices. Music, cinema, and gender mixing were banned. Mr. Abdulrahim, like many Saudi men and women who grew up between 1980 and 2010, learned to play the oud, an instrument common in Gulf folk music, quietly through friends. But today the religious police are gone. Music can be heard in the streets.

Heavy metal

Few have experienced this rapid transformation more profoundly than Fawaz Al-Shawaf, the frontman for the underground Saudi heavy metal band Creative Waste – underground, that is, until 2019.

Mr. Al-Shawaf is sitting in a cafe in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. He has a thin frame and a mild-mannered demeanor that betrays the manic energy and full-throated growls he brought to the stage for years in defiance of the religious police. In the mid-2000s, Mr. Al-Shawaf and Creative Waste performed at private gatherings and foreign-worker compounds in the oil-rich Eastern Province, away from the mutawa’s reach.

Mr. Al-Shawaf developed a love for heavy metal while living in the United States for two years with his father, who was working in Virginia. He decided to form a heavy metal band with friends in his garage after he returned to Saudi Arabia. In 2004, Creative Waste was born.

“We had no teacher, we had no YouTube, we didn’t even know how to tune a guitar,” Mr. Al-Shawaf says. “At first, it was horrible.”

Taylor Luck
An Emirati artist created a sculpture of a rockfall, called Falling Stones Garden, at an exhibition earlier this year in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.

Success soon followed, though. It began with local crowds of a few dozen. Then, in 2005, the band produced its first CD and performed a live concert in neighboring Bahrain. The group was setting a trend: The Eastern Province quickly became home to a burgeoning heavy metal scene.

But in 2009, the movement ran into a religious wall. A few bold promoters decided to replicate Creative Waste’s success with heavy metal music at a compound in the more conservative Riyadh – the heart of the religious establishment.

It ended in disaster: a police raid, a media smear campaign accusing the bands of devil worship, arrests, a deportation, and jail time. The ensuing crackdown on the underground heavy metal scene forced Mr. Al-Shawaf and Creative Waste to play abroad, touring in the U.S. and Europe.

Now in 2020, Mr. Al-Shawaf has come full circle – from fugitive musician to state guest of honor, invited to perform at state-organized festivals. In October 2019, Creative Waste did what many thought was impossible: play a public gig at a cafe.

“My mother had never seen us perform live,” Mr. Al-Shawaf says. “After seeing us live for the first time, she ‘got’ our music.”

From taboo to trendy

Dozens of Saudi schoolgirls draped in black abayas wander through a cavernous copper entrance. They whisper to each other as they splinter off to look at different exhibits – photos of refugees, a 1,000-year-old gold-gilded Quran, a display about humanity’s reliance on mobile phones.

Here at the King Abdulaziz World Center for World Culture, an institution funded by oil giant ARAMCO in eastern Saudi Arabia has emerged as an anchor in the kingdom’s cultural renaissance. In futuristic curved buildings rising from the sands of Dhahran, the center, also known as Ithra, is working to introduce Saudi audiences to the performing arts and cinema, grooming a generation of domestic artists and inventors along the way.

Opened in 2017, it includes the first museum, cinema, theater, and art gallery of its kind in the country. When it solicited works from local artists in 2019, Ithra received more than 600 submissions and is now grooming several contemporary artists, from painters to sculptors.  

Art has gone from taboo to trendy, suddenly in demand by princes, the government, and corporations, many of which are rushing to commission Saudi artists to produce works for their marble-floored offices. Observers say there is no better place to be an artist right now – commercially, at least – than in Saudi Arabia. Painters and sculptors who have flourished for years in cultural exile abroad are flocking home.

“If an artist in Europe becomes noticed within five to six years, that is considered rapid recognition,” says Candida Pestana, curator of contemporary art at Ithra. “Here in Saudi, that would happen in a single year.”

Meanwhile, international exhibitions are coming to Saudi cities, displaying works from surrealists to the more contemporary, and surprisingly, political. At the base of a sleek glass building in the heart of Riyadh’s financial district, dozens of Saudis mill through an exhibition of replicas of the last artist one would expect to see in the country: Banksy, a British graffiti artist.

Taylor Luck
Saudi visitors mill around the social protest works of Banksy, an anonymous British graffiti artist, at an exhibition in Riyadh that not long ago would have been scandalous – even dangerous – to stage in the religiously conservative country.

They scan Arabic and English explainers of the anonymous painter’s protest works on social inequality, mass consumerism, and injustice. Young women take videos of a live reenactment of a masked Banksy spray-painting on a street wall. Such an exhibit, held without Banksy’s consent, may seem tame to museumgoers in Europe or the U.S. But it is an edgy – even dangerous – choice for a kingdom where the leadership has locked up human rights activists and lashed bloggers, and censors the media.

“Where is the art he did for the Palestinians?” asks Mohammed Al Saud as he enters the exhibition with his wife, Nour.

A volunteer points him to a photo of Banksy’s “hole in the wall,” a porthole revealing a Bahamas-blue ocean and an idyllic island painted on the gray concrete separation barrier rising on the West Bank. Mr. Al Saud stops at a re-creation of Banksy’s 2015 work “Son of a Migrant From Syria,” featuring Steve Jobs carrying a sack over his left shoulder and an Apple IIe in his right hand, which was originally painted in the Calais migrant encampment in France.

“What is this trying to say, that Steve Jobs and businessmen are thieves?” Mr. Al Saud asks a volunteer.

“No, it is about migrants,” interrupts a Saudi woman. “Steve Jobs is of Syrian origin. It means refugees and migrants can contribute and excel, just like Jobs.”

Mr. Al Saud nods silently, impressed. He steps closer to the painting and motions with his hand to his veiled wife, now lingering over a photo on the opposite wall. The two peer at the caption.

“Mashallah, my God, isn’t that interesting?” he says to his wife. “Each graffiti has a larger message.”

Ms. Al Saud nods. “I didn’t know art could be political.”

Musical infrastructure

Yet the question lingers: How do you bring arts and music to a nation that for decades has been told they are immoral?

That task falls in part to former concert violinist Gehad al-Khaldi. In February, Ms. al-Khaldi was appointed chief executive officer of the Music Commission, one of 12 bodies formed by the Ministry of Culture to regulate and promote everything cultural.

“Under the Ministry of Culture, we are planning to have music for all,” Ms. al-Khaldi says via a videoconference call. “By ‘music for all,’ I mean we will introduce a music education platform for everyone, at all ages.”

The nascent commission is working with the Ministry of Education and Saudi universities to develop music education courses for children, secondary schools, and universities. The challenges are steep. Due to the decades-old music ban, there are no Saudi music teachers, and the government will be hard-pressed to build a cadre of qualified people in a few short years to serve 30,000 schools spread out across a country six times the size of Germany.

But the top priority is to introduce music and the arts at an early age to boost creative thinking. Behind the drive is the desire to produce a generation of Saudis who are well rounded and can think outside the box, not just be comfortable in government-backed jobs, as the country eventually transitions to a post-oil society.

Taylor Luck
A Concise Passage, an installation made from shipping materials, symbolizes the importance of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, as an ancient trade route.

“Music can enhance the way of thinking, communicating, and innovating,” Ms. al-Khaldi says. “This is why music is important, not just for society in Saudi Arabia, but for all human beings.”

Even though COVID-19 has forced the closure of the kingdom’s schools, the Music Commission is pushing ahead to develop an intensive one-year course for education majors, music advocacy campaigns for wider Saudi society, and an academy and conservatory to nurture local talent.

Making up for lost time

Many Saudis are already flocking to several private music academies that have popped up over the past year. One such institute is the Music Home School of Art, which opened in a tower in central Riyadh late last year. On a Thursday night in early March, a young woman practices guitar chords with her instructor in one room. In another, a father encourages his two young daughters at the piano.

The institute is the creation of local artists and Ayman Tayseer, former dean of the University of Jordan School of Arts and Design, who saw an opportunity in Saudi Arabia’s new embrace of culture. In a few short months, he and instructors from Tunisia, Egypt, and Ukraine have taught hundreds of Riyadh residents ranging from would-be rappers to older Saudis who missed out on music lessons when they were young.

“You see a veiled mother in her 50s come in to enroll her daughter for classes, but really she is coming to take oud lessons herself!” Mr. Tayseer says with a laugh.

Saudi music lovers face concerns few would consider. Women who wear the full-face niqab want to sing but refuse to lift the veil that muffles their voices. Many drop out after struggling to learn how to read sheet music.

“There is a large amount of hunger and talent,” Mr. Tayseer says. “But many have never even seen a live music performance before, so this is all very new.”

The highlight tonight is the open mic. Dozens of young Saudis gather at the institute’s airy studio, with a view of the Riyadh skyline, for a chance to strum their latest song on the oud or just belt out Beyoncé.

“Before, music was something we kept to ourselves. Now all of a sudden it is everywhere,” says Abdullah Mohammed, a self-taught cellist warming up on the side. “It is as if we are catching up on decades of lost time in a single year.”

More than just a creative outlet, music is offering a sense of community in a society that has long been governed by “thou shalt not” in a conservative city where houses are fenced in by high concrete walls.

But even amid the camaraderie, a lingering self-consciousness exists, ingrained by decades of intimidation. Women, and some men, shout “no photos, everyone!” before they walk onstage, to protect against images showing up on the internet. Women sit toward the back of the room to avoid being seen by others as they sway to the beat. The last hurdle in Saudi Arabia’s embrace of arts and music may be from within: the fear of being judged for having a good time.

Resistance to change

Yet there is still plenty of criticism of the kingdom’s cultural opening, both at home and abroad. Some believe Crown Prince Mohammed is simply focusing on social liberalization to placate demands for opening from the West rather than tackling true political reform in the tightly ruled kingdom.

“Keeping the public busy with concerts and festivals is not the answer,” says Oraib Rantawi, geopolitical analyst and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies. “Sidelining the religious establishment and cultural openings are small, positive steps, but the major reform needs are the social contract itself and true political representation. MBS and the Saudis are simply buying time,” he says of the crown prince.

While liberal social reforms may seem low-risk with the ruling family’s iron grip on power, they do alienate a conservative establishment and segments of society in cities and rural areas whose identities are intertwined with traditional practices. Quiet criticism emerges in some such pockets of society that reject the changes on cultural and religious grounds.

“There shouldn’t be songs and live music,” says Abu Mohammed, a resident of Al Ula, home of the Winter at Tantora festival. “We accept tourism, we accept the arts, but Western concerts come with drinking, mixing of men and women, and promiscuity. That just isn’t our culture.”

One reason there hasn’t been more pushback from conservatives is the sheer speed with which the changes are taking place.

“Before you have time to react to cinemas being built, there are concerts. Before you can react to the concerts, women can drive and go to sporting events,” says Abdulrahman Ali, a Riyadh engineer. “You never have time to keep up, let alone organize popular objection to it. Our heads are still spinning.” 

Still, even if a backlash were to develop, analysts believe the new arts movement is now established enough to remain for the foreseeable future. As Ms. al-Khaldi, the Music Commission CEO, puts it: “Life without music is a mistake.”

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