Pandemic tests the endurance of Middle East’s cultural industry

Pandemic tests the endurance of Middle East’s cultural industry
As the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on a global scale, one area that has been found to have especially weak immunity to a disruption of this kind is arts and culture. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 November 2020

Pandemic tests the endurance of Middle East’s cultural industry

Pandemic tests the endurance of Middle East’s cultural industry
  • Festivals, concerts and exhibitions across the Middle East have suffered a rough year under coronavirus restrictions 
  • With help from private institutions and foundations, artists are trying to rescue creative industries from the doldrums

DUBAI: As second and third waves of the coronavirus pandemic sweep the globe, the human and economic costs continue to mount. One area that has been found to have especially weak immunity to a disruption of this kind is arts and culture.

Governments, businesses and individuals suffered serious financial setbacks earlier in the year when the initial wave of infections led to a total lockdown in many countries.

However, those working in the creative industries proved exceptionally vulnerable to the containment measures as exhibitions and concerts got canceled, festivals postponed and many other cultural activities delayed until further notice.

UNESCO has put annual revenue from cultural and creative sectors at $2.3 trillion and exports at more than $250 billion. The sectors employ nearly 30 million people worldwide while some forecasts put its contribution to global gross domestic product at about 10 percent in the near future.




‘Complain’ by Khorshid Akhavan (Supplied)

Even as GCC countries reopened after months of lockdown, the art world was relegated to digital platforms for the foreseeable future.

As a result, many musicians, artists, photographers and comic illustrators saw their sources of income evaporate. Some cultural enterprises were forced out of business altogether.

Although a few professionals were able to shift online, others have struggled to adapt. For Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, founder of the Abu Dhabi Festival, digital will never compare with the real thing.

“The whole future is in this balance between virtual and real-life experience. Energy with people can’t be replaced,” she told a webinar in September, organized by the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute, on the impact of COVID-19 on festivals.

For Raed Asfour, an Amman-based theater director who also took part in the webinar, new technologies can play a role in recording and streaming concerts online, but the process may be prohibitively expensive.

Eckhard Thiemann, artistic director of Shubbak, London’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, said it may be a struggle convincing audiences to pay for concerts streamed online.

“We need to educate audiences to pay for online content. … If we provide authentic and genuine content, people will pay for it,” Thiemann said.

FASTFACT

Culture during COVID-19

* 30m People employed worldwide in cultural and creative sectors.

* 10% The sectors’ projected contribution to global GDP.

For artists and the creative industries, the shift to online has been a mixed bag of experiences. For some it was an opportunity to shake up tired old formats, while for others it offered a chance to collaborate.

“We have over 30 music centers here in the UAE and we consider each other competitors and we rarely collaborate with each other,” Tala Badri, executive director of the Centre for Musical Arts (CMA) in Dubai, told Arab News.

“But when COVID-19 hit, (we) got together and had a meeting to talk about what we were going to do to help each other. This is our livelihoods. Between us, we employ over 500 people (and) we teach over 4,000 people.” 

Lockdown measures have hit a sour note for music teachers as cash-strapped families cut back on their spending. “We have had no business for nearly six or seven months,” Badri said.

“When the lockdown happened in March, we moved all the lessons online. … That proved quite fortuitous for us, because we could move quickly and do that.”

“The difficulties and the challenges occurred more towards the summer when people really started to feel the effects of COVID-19, (when) a lot of people lost their jobs. One of the first things that goes is your extra-curricular activities, isn’t it? So, a lot of people decided not to continue with lessons.”




‘Bitter Sweet’ by Khorshid Akhavan (Supplied)

The number of students registered with the school dropped “overnight” from 1,200 to fewer than a third. As a result, the rent, salaries for 30 members of staff, and business loan repayments soon became a major operational challenge.

“From a financial perspective, it was very difficult. I mean, we managed to cope very well, but in coping we were still not able to generate an income to keep ourselves going,” Badri said.

Emirati illustrator Saeed Arjumand, who owns a comic book store in Dubai, has seen similar challenges. “I think that was the biggest change. Out of nowhere, we had to shut down, and this was very sudden,” he said. His store reopened in summer, but business “was not as good as it used to be.”

Recognizing the challenges facing the creative industries, many artists and galleries started banding together, leading to projects and collaborations that, in all likelihood, would otherwise have not materialized.

“The best thing that happened for artists is that a lot of institutions and cultural foundations came together to offer support for us artists, who are struggling during this time,” said Fatima Albudoor, an Emirati photographer and printmaker.

“Art Jameel, for example, made an open call for artists to submit proposals and then they would give them a grant. So I applied for that and I was able to get a grant for a project which I came up with because of the lockdown.”

Another initiative was the “This Too Shall Pass” auction hosted by Sotheby’s in June in partnership with seven galleries from Dubai’s Al-Serkal Avenue.

“In the first few weeks of lockdown there were a lot of calls, discussions and surveys about how to support and preserve our arts community,” William Lawrie, founder of the Lawrie Shabibi art gallery in Dubai, told Arab News in June.

“In one of the Zoom calls, which included all of the galleries in Al-Serkal Avenue, the idea of an auction to support the galleries and their artists was mooted, with a charitable component to benefit vulnerable people made even more disadvantaged by COVID-19.”

In May, the Saudi art gallery Athr launched an initiative to provide financial grants to help support the work of artists in the Kingdom. It launched a project titled “Maan” (Arabic for together) in a bid to cushion the impact of the pandemic on the local art scene.

As part of its mission to keep the arts sustained and accessible to a wider audience, Jeddah-based Athr collaborated with seven artists who agreed to produce limited-edition works to fund the grants.




‘Hengam’ by Khorshid Akhavan (Supplied)

Canadian-Iranian expressionist Khorshid Akhavan says travel restrictions and a fall in commissions have taken a toll on her earnings, as customers have cut back on such luxuries. At the same time, she says, the pandemic has been a powerful source of inspiration.

“For me it has been both positive and negative, I would say,” she told Arab News. “The positive would be that all the emotions came up, so I could come up with some great art to express my feelings.”

Silver linings, perhaps. And as Alkhamis-Kanoo said during September’s webinar, the pandemic has certainly forced artists to be “more resilient” and to start working collectively.

“It is incredible what I am seeing in terms of relations and innovation,” she said. “We connect, and we find each other, and we unite through our festivals to fight back.”

Looking on the bright side, the Group of 20 culture ministers recently pledged to support the global cultural economy.

Addressing the virtual meeting, organized in the first week of November as part of the International Conferences Program, Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan said: “This high-level cultural presence at Saudi G20 presidency illustrates our shared belief in the vital role of culture in propelling the innovation ecosystem of economies. The onus is on us to preserve our shared heritage for future generations and to produce and disseminate culture in a sustainable manner.”

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi

 


90 detained Egyptians in Libya released

90 detained Egyptians in Libya released
A doctor from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) checks a rescued migrant's identity before administering a Coronavirus test, in Ben Guerdane, southern Tunisia, Saturday June 12, 2021. (AP)
Updated 23 June 2021

90 detained Egyptians in Libya released

90 detained Egyptians in Libya released
  • Mohamed Tharwat Selim said the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli succeeded in resolving the matter in coordination with relevant Libyan authorities

CAIRO: Ninety Egyptians who had been detained at the headquarters of illegal immigration in Tripoli since last Friday have been released, said the head of Egypt’s Diplomatic Mission in Libya’s capital.
Mohamed Tharwat Selim said the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli succeeded in resolving the matter in coordination with relevant Libyan authorities.
He thanked the Libyan interior minister, officials and local authorities for their efforts, which Selim said reflect the close relations between the two countries. He added that most of those released were from Minya Governorate.


Egyptian leader backs Greek PM on eastern Med issues

Egyptian leader backs Greek PM on eastern Med issues
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi receives Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis ahead of their meeting in Cairo on Tuesday. (AP)
Updated 23 June 2021

Egyptian leader backs Greek PM on eastern Med issues

Egyptian leader backs Greek PM on eastern Med issues
  • El-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s solidarity with Greece, especially regarding the principles of noninterference in internal affairs

CAIRO: Egypt will stand in solidarity with Greece against any threat to its sovereignty, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said.

The Egyptian president was speaking at a joint press conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis following talks between the two leaders in Cairo.
El-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s firm position in the eastern Mediterranean, especially regarding the principles of noninterference in internal affairs, stressing solidarity with Greece.
“Relations with Greece are a model for cooperation and integration at the regional level, as Egypt and Greece share distinguished friendship ties,” he said, adding that Egypt’s position in the eastern Mediterranean region is consistent, and respects the sovereignty and territorial waters of countries.
He also stressed the necessity of disbanding militias in Libya, saying that Egypt and Greece agreed on the need to start an effective political movement in the country following the exit of all foreign forces and mercenaries.
El-Sisi and Mitsotakis also discussed supporting the Libyans in conducting elections on the scheduled date of Dec. 24.

FASTFACT

The two leaders agreed on the need to enhance tripartite cooperation between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, and to achieve maximum benefit from that cooperation. El-Sisi and Mitsotakis also discussed supporting Libyans in conducting elections on the scheduled date of Dec. 24.

The two leaders agreed on the need to enhance tripartite cooperation between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, and to achieve maximum benefit from that cooperation. They stressed the importance of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which would open up prospects for cooperation and investment between the countries of the region in the field of energy and gas.
The two sides stressed the importance of reaching a fair and balanced legal agreement on filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam being built by Ethiopia in a manner that achieves the interests of the downstream countries and maintains regional stability.
Extensive talks were held between Egypt and Greece, co-chaired by Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and his Greek counterpart.
Madbouly voiced his hopes of strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries, especially in the field of energy, electrical interconnection across the island of Crete, and working with the Greek government to export natural gas surplus to Europe.
He referred to recent efforts made by the Egyptian government to provide a healthy and safe environment for tourists, in order to restore the incoming tourism movement, calling on the Greek side to strengthen tourism cooperation between the two countries.
Mohamed Shaker, minister of electricity and renewable energy indicated that he is working in coordination with the Ministry of Petroleum to finalize the study of the proposed memorandum of understanding for cooperation with Greece in this regard.
Tarek El Molla, minister of petroleum and mineral resources, expressed his aspiration to sign a long-term cooperation agreement in the field of gas, and expressed his readiness to receive all the details of the Greek side’s needs in this regard.


Battle for Marib deals severe blow to Houthis

Battle for Marib deals severe blow to Houthis
Updated 23 June 2021

Battle for Marib deals severe blow to Houthis

Battle for Marib deals severe blow to Houthis
  • Yemeni government vows to defeat Houthis as fighting rages outside Marib
  • Austrian FM: Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia are unacceptable

ALEXANDRIA: Fighting between Yemeni loyalists and Houthi rebels seeking to take the strategic northern city of Marib has killed 90 fighters in two days, pro-government military sources said on Tuesday.

The Iran-backed Houthi militia on Monday night mounted a fresh assault on the internationally recognized government’s forces in Al-Mashjah and Al-Kasara areas, west of Marib, triggering heavy clashes that continued until Tuesday afternoon and claimed the lives of dozens of combatants.

The Ministry of Defense said that dozens of Houthis were killed in the fighting and that they lost a significant amount of military equipment.

Loyalist officials told AFP that pro-government forces had repelled Houthi attacks north of the city in clashes that left 63 rebels and 27 loyalist fighters dead since Monday.

The Ministry of Defense said the Houthis lost a significant amount of military equipment.

State media on Tuesday broadcast videos showing government forces exchanging mortar and heavy machine gun fire with the Houthis as a large convoy of vehicles rushed to reinforce government troops.

Bodies of dead Houthis were also seen scattered on the battlefield.

Yemeni Army commanders and government officials said that massive military support, logistics and air cover from the Arab coalition have shored up Yemeni government forces and helped thwart relentless Houthi assaults on Marib.

Lt. Col. Rashad Al-Mekhlafi, a military official at the Yemeni Army’s Moral Guidance Department, told Arab News that military operations and airstrikes in Marib have greatly worn down the Houthis, with the rebels losing thousands of fighters, including many senior commanders.

“The Houthi militia has been largely depleted. The Arab coalition warplanes played a vital role in striking its reinforcements and weapons depots and destroying its equipment,” Al-Mekhlafi said.

To seize control of Marib’s oil and gas fields and power stations, the Houthis resumed a major military offensive in February.

The effort has forced thousands of Yemenis to flee their homes amid warnings from local and international aid organizations that the Houthi invasion of Marib would aggravate the humanitarian crisis and trigger a large displacement, with the city hosting thousands of internally displaced people.

The government and military commanders have vowed to push ahead with military operations in Marib until the Houthis are defeated and justice is brought to rebel leaders who ordered attacks on civilians across Yemen.

Yemen’s official news agency reported on Monday that Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed telephoned senior military commanders in Marib to renew the government’s support to troops and allied tribesmen in their “decisive” battle against the Houthis, vowing to punish the Iran-backed force for disrupting peace efforts to end the war and killing and abducting Yemenis.

The Yemeni Army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sagheer bin Aziz, also said that its troops and tribesmen have high combat skills and morale.

He said they follow military plans and that “the force of arms” alone would put an end to the Houthi militia’s takeover of power.

“They would destroy the capabilities of the Iranian Houthi terrorist militia and force them to surrender by force of arms, as that is the only way to restore the state and end the suffering of our people,” Bin Aziz tweeted.

 

Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia denounced

Meanwhile, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg on Tuesday condemned the relentless Houthi attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia, describing them as “unacceptable.”

Saudi Arabia’s air defenses intercepted and destroyed a booby-trapped drone launched by the militia toward southern Saudi Arabia, state TV reported.

The drone was targeting the city of Khamis Mushayt. The Arab coalition said this was the latest example of the Houthis deliberately targeting civilians and civilian targets.

At a press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Schallenberg said Vienna supports developments taking place across Saudi Arabia in several areas.

Prince Faisal said the Houthi militia has regularly rejected initiatives for a complete ceasefire, and always resorted to escalating the situation.


Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage

Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage
Updated 22 June 2021

Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage

Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage
  • Family were preparing for journey to Beirut airport to meet father as he returned from working abroad
  • Lebanon facing vast queues for petrol amid fuel shortage and economic crisis

BEIRUT: A Lebanese mother and her four daughters were killed when their car was hit by a military vehicle as they searched for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage.

The family were preparing to travel from southern Lebanon to Beirut airport this week to pick up the daughters’ father, who was expected to fly home from working abroad.

Fatima Koubeissi, her twins Tia and Lia, 4, and her two other daughters Aya, 13, and Zahra, 17, were killed when the military vehicle hit their car from behind on Monday night. Another relative, Hussein Zein, 22, who was driving their car, died on Tuesday from his injuries.

The sisters had not seen their father, Imad Hawile, since he went looking for a job in Liberia five months ago, their uncle Qassim Hawile told Arab News.

Amid a worsening economic crisis, Lebanon is suffering massive fuel shortages with long queues outside petrol stations leading to traffic jams on nearby roads.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces [ISF] traffic control section reported a number of recent accidents caused by petrol queues.

The family from Al-Sharqeyye village went searching for petrol on Monday afternoon to prepare for the journey to the airport on Wednesday.

“We have not been able to find petrol across the south,” Qassim said.

ISF’s traffic control said the accident involved five cars and took place on the Jeyye-Saida highway.

A cousin of Fatima told Arab News that the accident happened because of a “vehicle that came in the opposite direction of the road wanting to bypass a queue outside a petrol station.
“They (the mother and four daughters) died on the spot,” he said.

Qassim said his brother contracted malaria during his first month in Liberia and then a second time “so he decided to return for better medication.”

“We did not want my brother to know that his family died in the crash but he saw the news and images on Facebook,” said Qassim.

He said the funeral was expected to take place on Thursday.

The accident happened when their driver saw two BMWs rammed into each other so he stopped but the military vehicle came and hit them from the back, sending it into a pick-up truck, Qassim said.
Civil Defense and Red Cross teams attended the scene and moved the injured and the dead to nearby hospitals.

Petrol stations have been constantly low on subsidized petrol for weeks, but shortages worsened in June as people’s fears of rationing and shortages intensified, leading to a large number of petrol stations closing down.

A number of fistfights, heated arguments and shootings have taken place between irritated drivers.
Last week, three people were injured in an accident outside a petrol station where cars were queueing on the highway connecting Beirut to southern.


Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam
Updated 22 June 2021

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam
  • Sudan requests UNSC to discuss GERD and ‘its impact on the safety and security of millions of people’
  • Foreign minister is urging Ethiopia to stop the unilateral filling of the dam

KHARTOUM: Sudan asked the UN Security Council on Tuesday to meet and discuss a dispute over a giant dam being built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, a government statement said.
Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), while the two downstream countries — Egypt and Sudan — are concerned about it and seeking a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
Egypt relies on the Nile River for as much as 90 percent of its fresh water and sees the dam as an existential threat. Sudan is concerned about the operation of its own Nile dams and water stations.
Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam Sadiq Al-Mahdi called on the Security Council to hold a session as soon as possible to discuss GERD and “its impact on the safety and security of millions of people,” the government statement said.
In a letter to the council head, she called on him to urge Ethiopia to stop the “unilateral” filling of the dam “which exacerbates the dispute and poses a threat to regional and international peace and security,” the statement added.
Ethiopian officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Sudan and Egypt had already agreed this month to work together on all levels to push Ethiopia to negotiate “seriously” on an agreement, after African Union-sponsored talks remained deadlocked. The two countries called on the international community to intervene.
Earlier this month, Arab states called on the Security Council to discuss the dispute and Ethiopia’s plans to go ahead with the second filling of the dam this summer even without an agreement with Sudan and Egypt.
Ethiopia rejected the Arab League resolution in its entirety, its Foreign Ministry said.
The country previously rejected calls from Egypt and Sudan to involve mediators outside the African Union.
Sudan said earlier in June that it was open to a partial interim agreement on the multibillion-dollar dam, with specific conditions.