Saudi Arabia launches cultural transformation

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Tombs carved out from limestone rocks are among the attractions of Al-ʿUla and Madain-Saleh in Saudi Arabia's western province of Madinah. (Courtesy of Royal Commission for Al-Ula)
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Tombs carved out from limestone rocks are among the attractions of Al-ʿUla and Madain-Saleh in Saudi Arabia's western province of Madinah. (Shutterstock image)
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Conservation work at Turaif, is a town in the Northern Borders Province, lose to the Kingdom's border with Jordan. (AFP)
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A restored building in the old city of Jeddah. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2019

Saudi Arabia launches cultural transformation

  • The Ministry of Culture has announced new initiatives to add to Saudi Arabia’s evolving cultural scene
  • Saudi Arabia is home to five officially recognized UNESCO sites

RIYADH: In a night showcasing arts and culture at a ceremony in Riyadh’s museum district, Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan announced new initiatives designed to transform the cultural sector into an essential part of people’s everyday lives.

Two masters of ceremony presented the Ministry of Culture’s roadmap before Prince Badr’s opening remarks.

The ministry “intends to create an environment that supports national talents in all areas and sectors, and to preserve the country’s culture and wealth,” he said.

“Our country is proud of its innovators and talents who, with their works, have reached unprecedented heights and won important awards.”

The ministry strives to present Saudi Arabia’s rich culture in the best way possible, based on the Vision 2030 reform plan’s goal to enhance quality of life and raise citizens’ aspirations, Prince Badr said. 

The event brought together members of the media, entrepreneurs, artists, Saudi officials, cultural influencers, and government representatives from around the world. 

It included orchestral performances of traditional Saudi music, and a dinner hosted by Prince Badr at the King Abdul Aziz Heritage Center.

The new initiatives include a fund to support artists, scholarship programs, arts prizes, festivals, exhibitions, libraries, fashion weeks, a national theater, a national film archive, a cultural city, and a visa scheme for international artists to visit Saudi Arabia.

International artists will be offered the chance for the first time to take up residency in Saudi Arabia.  The new “cultural residency” scheme was among a raft of initiatives announced at a glittering event in Riyadh on Wednesday to launch the Ministry of Culture’s vision and strategy for the future.

“Today marks a turning point in the history of our nation. It is rare that a nation undergoes such a massive revival of its culture, and that is exactly what is happening,” said Prince Badr.

“The transformation of arts and culture will benefit all Saudis, young and old, from every corner of our country. It will help build bridges of understanding,” he added.

“For our children, we will build a Saudi Arabia where their creative sprits can flourish, confident in their past, stepping out into the future and into the world.”

A stunning visual display of various aspects of Saudi culture at the Ministry of Culture launch ceremony. (Arab News photo)

Attending the ceremony, one of Saudi Arabia’s top conceptual artists, Abdulnasser Gharem, applauded the new initiatives. 

“As artists, the Ministry of Culture is a symbol of national pride. It’s a vital social tool of intercultural dialogue that also serves as a platform contributing to the expansion of the dialogue and convergence between both cultural and intellectual capacities,” the artist, known for his use of various media such as photography and sculpture, said in a statement.

As one of the earliest contributors to the Saudi art scene, Gharem helped found the non-profit arts organization Edge of Arabia, which promotes arts education and provides an international platform to contemporary Saudi artists.

Aram Kabbani, one of the Kingdom’s top stylists and fashion consultants, commended the ministry’s efforts in supporting young Saudi talents not only in the arts and fashion scene, but also in other sectors. 

“The ministry has been doing an important and amazing job supporting entrepreneurs and local talents, providing them with the proper resources and care to allow them to thrive,” she told Arab News.

The initiatives come at a busy time for culture in Saudi Arabia, which was set in motion by the launch of Vision 2030 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016. 

The ambitious plan outlines 24 goals to achieve in economic, political and societal development, with specific initiatives that include culture.

“Our vision is a strong, thriving and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all,” the crown prince said. 

Since the establishment of the Ministry of Culture in June 2018 by royal decree, it has strived to promote Saudi culture as one of the most important aspects of Vision 2030, stressing that it will improve quality of life in the Kingdom and promote national talent.

Saudi Arabia has participated in various international cultural events for the first time, such as the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Biennale and the Sundance Film Festival. 

It has also hosted events including the Winter at Tantora festival, which brought visitors to Al-Ula, home of the Madain Salah UNESCO heritage site, with big-name entertainers every weekend.

One of the ministry’s recent initiatives was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) last week with UNESCO to promote cooperation in culture and preserve heritage. 

The MoU includes repairing heritage sites and developing the arts through festivals, libraries, book fairs, conferences and education.  

Saudi Arabia is home to five officially recognized UNESCO sites: Al-Ahsa Oasis, Madain Saleh, At-Turaif District in Riyadh’s Ad Diriyah, Historic Jeddah, and the rock art of the Hail region.

While accompanying the crown prince on his recent tour of Asia, Prince Badr announced the establishment of a chair named after Ibrahim Al-Qadi, in celebration of the Saudi-born artist’s contributions in the fields of theater and arts in India. 

Al-Qadi’s “pioneering work … opened horizons in the fields of theater and arts in India,” said Prince Badr during the crown prince’s Asia tour.

Saudi Hajj ministry investigating how gift to pilgrims was wrongly labelled ‘anthrax’ 

Updated 9 min 35 sec ago

Saudi Hajj ministry investigating how gift to pilgrims was wrongly labelled ‘anthrax’ 

  • The Arabic word “jamarat" was inaccurately translated to “anthrax",  a dangerous infectious disease
  • Citing possible repercussions of the mistranslation, scholars want a probe to pinpoint responsibility

RIYADH: The Hajj and Umrah Ministry is investigating the inaccurate translation of the word “jamarat” into “anthrax,” which led to Sheikh Yusuf Estes making a video warning pilgrims of the mistake and its possible repercussions.

The translation concerned a bag that was a gift to pilgrims, containing small pebbles to use for the “stoning of the devil” upon their return from Muzdalifah. The bag had the correct original Arabic description, which roughly translates as “jamarat pebble bag,” whereas the English version of “jamarat” was translated into “anthrax,” a dangerous infectious disease.

According to SPA, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah was notified and opened an investigation with the contractor and translator on August 10, before handing them to authorities to take the necessary disciplinary action.

“Anthrax, where did they get that? They get it from Google, it’s not Google’s fault. Google allows people to tell the meaning of the different languages of words,” Sheikh Yusuf said in the video.

Google Translate, the free multilingual machine translator, relies on comparing large quantities of content between pairs of languages to establish patterns and, in most cases, determine the probability that certain words in one language will correspond with a set of words in another. 


The contractor and translator are being investigated for the inaccurate translation of the word ‘jamarat’ into ‘anthrax.’

Putting Google Translate to the test, Arab News used the platform to translate a name of a type of fish known in the region as “sha’oor” from Arabic to English. The scientific term for the fish is Lethrinus nebulosus, a type of emperor fish most commonly known as the green snapper or sand snapper.  

Google Translate’s translation was “thickness of feeling.”

Though it yields imperfect results, the service can be used at a pinch, though real human translators rather than artificial intelligence are far more likely to lead to more accurate translations.  

Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Gisele Riachy, director of the Center for Languages and Translation at the Lebanese University in Beirut, explained how the mistranslation of “jamarat” could have happened.

“We have two possibilities, it was either translated by Google Translate or the translator was provided with a single sentence and therefore didn’t understand the meaning of “jamarat,” she said.

“The translator may have not taken into consideration the general context of the word, which has certain religious connotations, therefore it should have been borrowed, translated by the “Stoning of the Devil” or even left as it is.”

Dr. Riachy said that the word anthrax cannot be translated without an accompanying adjective for a better explanation of the term.

“What surprised me is that when translating the word “jamarat” from Arabic to English, the word should have been accompanied with the adjective “khabitha,” or malignant in Arabic, for it to be translated to “anthrax” in English. That is why I am confused and I do not think Google Translate would have translated it into “anthrax” if the Arabic version didn’t include the word “khabitha.”

Sheikh Yusuf Estes’ video was intended for those who would like to take the small bags home as a souvenir or gift, sending a message that the mistranslation could cause the traveler trouble with customs in their own countries.