How Louvre-Saudi Islamic cultural ties are promoting peace and tolerance

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Alwaleed Philanthropies general secretary Princess Lamia (R) with former French president Francois Hollande (L) and Islamic Art Department director Yannick Lintz (C) at the unveiling of the newly launched spaces at the Islamic Art Department of the Louvre. (Alwaleed Philanthropies)
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Alwaleed Philanthropies general secretary Princess Lamia (L) with former French president Francois Hollande at the unveiling of the newly launched spaces at the Islamic Art Department of the Louvre. (Alwaleed Philanthropies)
Updated 13 September 2019

How Louvre-Saudi Islamic cultural ties are promoting peace and tolerance

  • Partnership between Alwaleed Philanthropies and Louvre is latest in a series of cultural tie-ups between Saudi Arabia and France
  • Newly expanded space for Islamic art at the Louvre was unveiled on Tuesday, showcasing 3,000 pieces and artefacts across 12 centuries of Islamic history

PARIS: As tourists wander into the Louvre Museum courtyard, a 15-meter banner hanging on the wall of the grand building emblazoned with a Renaissance portrait by one of Europe’s old masters is an instant reminder of who and what they are here to see.

Leonardo da Vinci’s work at the museum, and his ‘Mona Lisa’ in particular, pulls in huge crowds, with thousands queuing each day, all year round.

From this week, there will be a new attraction that marks a high point of cultural cooperation between France and the Arab world, and it is well worth the admission fee.

The newly expanded space for Islamic art at the Louvre was unveiled on Tuesday, showcasing 3,000 pieces and artefacts across 12 centuries of Islamic history from locations ranging from southern Spain to northern India.




The newly expanded space for Islamic art at the Louvre was unveiled on Tuesday, which will showcase 3,000 pieces and artifacts across 12 centuries of Islamic history from locations as wide-ranging as southern Spain to northern India. (Alwaleed Philanthropies)

The expansion was made possible with support from, and in partnership with, Saudi Arabia’s Alwaleed Philanthropies.

While the foundation carries out work in numerous fields from women’s empowerment to disaster relief across the globe, this cultural tie-up with the Louvre is a fruitful and long-running partnership. It dates back to 2002 and led to the foundation donating $23 million in 2005 to help to construct the museum’s Department of Islamic Art.

The collaboration’s importance to both parties was made clear in an address from Alwaleed Philanthropies’ general secretary, Princess Lamia bint Majed Al-Saud, at the launch attended by the former French president Francois Hollande.

The partnership is built on more than run-of-the-mill donations by benevolent collectors; it is a project with a clear mission of spreading a message of peace and tolerance — one that Princess Lamia is particularly passionate about.




The newly expanded space for Islamic art at the Louvre was unveiled on Tuesday, which will showcase 3,000 pieces and artifacts across 12 centuries of Islamic history from locations as wide-ranging as southern Spain to northern India. (Alwaleed Philanthropies)

“Prince Alwaleed believes very much in dialogue and promoting tolerance and understanding, and that is one of the core areas of focus for the foundation,” she told Arab News.

“The prince also believes in the power of art, so this collaboration is very important, as we share (with the Louvre) a vision and a perspective that we need to use art to create that world of tolerance and understanding.

“This partnership is one of our biggest initiatives and, for me personally, the one I’m most proud of because it reflects how we want people to see Islam and this part of the world. I’m very glad that we share this vision.

“Islamic art and heritage, at the end of the day, reflects what Islam is and what this part of the world was,” she added.

FASTFACT

Saudi-French cultural ties

The partnership between Alwaleed Philanthropies and the Louvre is the latest in a series of cultural tie-ups between Saudi Arabia and France following Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to France last year. The visit saw the signing of several cooperation agreements ranging from setting up a national opera to developing tourism around archaeological sites such as AlUla as well as an exhibition called “Saudi Cultural Days” highlighting the culture and arts scene in the Kingdom.

The inspiration for this latest expansion and development of the Louvre’s Islamic Art Department was born out of a 2016 meeting between the princess and department director Yannick Lintz after two major terrorist incidents in France the previous year in which more than 140 people were killed by militants.

Those two barbaric acts made Lintz realize there was a need for a change in how centers of culture and education such as the Louvre used art and heritage to better answer questions about Islam and its rich cultural background.

“It is important to show the true history and range of this exceptional culture and its contribution to, and interaction with, humanity’s collective artistic canon,” she said.

It is a point Princess Lamia believes cannot be made strongly enough.

“There had been a huge distortion in the vision and the picture of our part of the world and of the Islamic religion in general,” the princess said.

“I think art is the only language that has no barriers, no restrictions and it does not reflect any race or gender. To use art was a very smart move on the part of Prince Alwaleed, and to pick this project reflects how we (as a foundation) appreciate art and how we promote and support that.

“The education department here is very important, especially as we enter a digital era and look to implement more interactivity. I hope people can understand and view things from our perspective and we can succeed in reflecting an image that we are all alike and we can understand each other through art,” she added.




Princess Lamia addressing dignitaries and media at the unveiling of the newly launched spaces at the Islamic Art Department of the Louvre. (Alwaleed Philanthropies)

The foundation’s commitment to bridging cultural gaps through art and heritage is an ongoing project. A further collaboration with the Pergamon Museum in Berlin will have a “very unique piece” on display, Princess Lamia told Arab News.

She also highlighted Alwaleed Philanthropies’ six centers at prestigious universities such as Cambridge, Edinburgh, Georgetown and Harvard, saying: “At Cambridge and Edinburgh, we have very interesting pieces of Islamic heritage. We have this message we want to spread and we do it via many different projects.”

The Louvre’s Islamic art collection is one of the most extensive of its kind and is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors — a model Saudi Arabia is looking to emulate as part of its Vision 2030 and its plans to showcase the best of Saudi culture and heritage.

When asked by Arab News if she envisages similar exhibitions of specifically Saudi art and heritage on the horizon, Princess Lamia said: “I believe it will happen soon, we have a lot of beautiful pieces, but tradition and mindsets did make it difficult to get pieces out of the country.

“But I think with the new minister of culture Prince Badr Al-Farhan, the vision of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and jewels like Ithra, Al-Ula and Al-Soudah, we are giving a lot of attention to heritage and it’s what we need to do. It’s just the beginning.”


UK ambassador reflects on five ‘big years’ in Saudi Arabia

Outgoing UK Ambassador Simon Collis speaks during an interview with Arab News in Riyadh. (AN photo by Saleh Al-Ghanem)
Updated 27 January 2020

UK ambassador reflects on five ‘big years’ in Saudi Arabia

  • Gap between perception and reality of Kingdom, says Simon Collis

RIYADH: Britain’s outgoing ambassador to Saudi Arabia said it has been a privilege to be in the country for the last five years and witness the changes in the Kingdom firsthand.

Simon Collis joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1978 and has been an ambassador in Iraq, Syria and Qatar. He has also held senior diplomatic positions in Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Dubai and India.
His diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia began a week after King Salman came to the throne in January 2015. A personal highlight was performing the Hajj in 2016 with wife Huda.
The five years that we’ve been here have been five big years, not only for us but five big years ... in the history of Saudi Arabia and certainly in the relationship with the UK,” he told Arab News. “It’s been just a wonderful time.”
He said there used to be concern about the role of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known as the Mutawa’a or religious police, and its unchecked power.
“There were people that would be nervous about it. There was no music in public places, there was no mixing in restaurants. In 2015 no one would have imagined just how much these changes would be, first with (the reform plan) Vision 2030, then economic, and also social changes, women driving, the removal of the guardianship laws across pretty much everything, and the balancing role of the Mutawa’a.”
He welcomed the government’s emphasis on developing the entertainment and cultural sectors, calling it a “tremendous story,” and said he had enjoyed witnessing the Kingdom’s transformation.
“To see the enthusiasm in a young country, I think a lot of these new sectors, creative entertainment, on top of the existing ones like education, have been a delight to see. Of course, it’s not finished yet. I think this period, these five years, will look like a big moment in the history of the Kingdom.”
Changes in the Kingdom have attracted interest — and greater visitor numbers — from overseas.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Simon Collis joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1978 and has been an ambassador in Iraq, Syria and Qatar.

• He has also held senior diplomatic positions in Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Dubai and India.

• His diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia began a week after King Salman came to the throne in January 2015.

• A personal highlight was performing the Hajj in 2016 with wife Huda.

The country is gaining a reputation for hosting massive events featuring the world’s biggest names including boxing match Clash On The Dunes pitting Britain’s Anthony Joshua against Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr, the electronic dance music festival MDL Beast featuring David Guetta and Steve Aoki, and concerts from K-Pop megastars BTS and Super Junior.
The ambassador said there was a gap between the perception of the Kingdom and the country’s on-the-ground reality.
“In any country, there is a gap between the perception that the image that exists in the world, and the reality that you find. This is true of any country. That gap between the perception and reality has been bigger in relation to Saudi Arabia than to any other country that I’ve lived in. So, the result is once people visit and they see for themselves, then they change their overall perception. They change their minds, and this is a very powerful thing.”
Tens of thousands of UK nationals visit the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah every year to perform Hajj and Umrah, but the reasons to visit the country are increasing.
Collis said that 43,000 people from the UK had taken advantage of a new e-visa system launched last October to visit Saudi Arabia, the highest number in the world.
“Every year we’ve seen the number of Saudi nationals visiting the UK increase, now it’s coming the other way,” Collis said. “With a population of less than 70 million, and it’s the No. 1 country visiting Saudi Arabia more than any other country, I’m very proud of that. I would say that of the hundreds and thousands of British people who I have met visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, every single person I have met has left with a more positive (outlook) than the one that they arrived with. So, more visits must mean more people have a better idea of the realities of this country, society and its people.”
Collis said he had met many Saudis and forged friendships with them. People in the Kingdom had integrity and were straightforward, and the ambassador had special praise for the younger generation saying there was a “natural enjoyment” when he sat with them to talk. They were very aware, he added.

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43,000 - people from the UK had taken advantage of a new e-visa system launched last October to visit Saudi Arabia, the highest number in the world.

His regard for young Saudis is evident. He launched the Alumni Awards, which recognize Saudi students who have returned to the Kingdom, excelled and succeeded in their professions or made an impact in their communities. With more than 100,000 Saudis studying in the UK over the last 10 years, the program will be developed in order to increase engagement with them once they return to Saudi Arabia.
The national and global awards initiative is aimed at showcasing the impact and value of a UK higher education, and winners and finalists are leaders in their fields.
“The Alumni Awards are fun. What the award looks at, whether it’s an entrepreneur or professional or social category, it’s not what did you do in the UK with your studies, it’s when you got your qualification, what did you do in Saudi Arabia when you came back. How did you use it? It’s about what use you put it to, not what you get, but how did you use it to further your own career, your life and that of your community and others around you,” Collis said.
Collis is succeeded as the UK’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia by Neil Crompton, who takes up the role next month.