The year is now 2017 and, as the young Gulf states make great leaps in the cultural space under the direct auspices of their leaders, it seems a regional renaissance may well be underway.
The parallels are indeed numerous. Renaissance Europe was ravaged by religious conflict and had never regained the intellectual productivity it had under Greece or Rome. Humbled by successive plagues, Italy was the unlikely birthplace for a movement of such consequence. Intractable conflicts in Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere today are symptomatic of political malaise across the Middle East — the backdrop for a growing cultural and intellectual movement that is taking hold.
This week, it was announced that an art institute would be established in Saudi Arabia, with the aim of becoming a leading platform for young creative minds to immerse themselves in the arts. Alongside the building of a permanent structure for the Saudi pavilion for the Venice Biennale next spring, a new book fair and permits for the establishment of cinemas are nothing short of cultural transformation, which is being driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his MiSK Foundation. With a National Public Art Prize and museums on the way, it is clear there is an ambition for both Saudi and regional human capital to be unlocked in the name of knowledge.
With museums being opened at an unprecedented pace, there is real impetus for intellectual discovery. The recent opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi showed that such grand projects can be used to propagate a message that is greater still — one of tolerance. In a region racked by conflict and instability, such messages are critical to progress. This is not a foreign concept but in fact the reclaiming of a lost respect for other cultures that characterized early Islamic civilizations. The two greatest centers of learning in their time, the House of Wisdom in Abbasid Baghdad and the Toledo School of Translators in Spain, were intellectual powerhouses built on the exchange of ideas between the Islamic and Christian worlds.
Just as the fall of Constantinople in 1453 generated a wave of emigre Greek scholars who brought precious manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity in the West, regional tumult has led to a cross-fertilization of ideas in safe havens. The manner in which Dubai has attracted some of the finest Arab minds is remarkable. Within a decade, the Dubai International Financial Center has drawn the talent of Arab migrants who otherwise would not have had the opportunities to excel in their respective countries. The success of such satellites mirrors the path of the Italian city-states in the 15th century, which successfully married responsive government, religious trends and the birth of capitalism, setting the preconditions for the Renaissance to take place. The wealth brought to Genoa and Venice through international trade provided patrons with the resources to commission great works of art; and as Arab capitals have become more globalized, such patronage for the arts has similarly increased.
Conflicts throughout the region are symptomatic of political malaise but are also the backdrop for a growing cultural and intellectual movement.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The bedrock of any intellectual movement is reading and, among the splendid galleries and museums planned for the region, reading rates should be improved if a true renaissance is to take place. For a people that gave the world so much in the form of intellectual progress, reading rates remain pitifully low. The Arab world, with a population of more than 360 million, produces about the same number of books as a country the size of Romania. In a further measure highlighting the gravity of the situation, the number of public libraries in Egypt is around a 10th of those in Germany. Unless reading rates are improved, a skills gap will continue to remain and, even with rigorous international buying of artwork, the expertise will not be available to analyze and archive such work so as to be benefitted from by future generations. The Renaissance saw huge advances in science and literature, as well as art, and any intellectual movement of consequence regionally must be holistic in its approach.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid