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

 


Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister
Updated 25 sec ago

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister
  • Port Sudan is the country’s main seaport and a vital trade hub for its export-dependent economy

KHARTOUM: Sudanese protesters on Saturday blocked two key oil pipelines in Port Sudan, the main seaport on the Red Sea, over a peace deal with rebel groups, the oil minister said.

Warning of “an extremely grave situation,” Oil Minister Gadein Ali Obeid told AFP one pipeline transports oil exports from South Sudan while the other handles Sudanese crude imports.

“Entrances and exits at the port’s export terminal have been completely shuttered” since early Saturday, he said.

Last October, several rebel groups signed a peace deal with Sudan’s transitional government which came to power shortly after the April 2019 ouster of longtime President Omar Bashir.

The protesters, from Sudan’s Beja minority, say that the deal, with rebels from the Darfur region and Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, ignored their interests.

Beja rebels agreed on a peace deal with the Bashir regime in 2006 after a decade of low-level conflict in Port Sudan and the east.

Port Sudan is the country’s main seaport and a vital trade hub for its export-dependent economy.

The Khartoum government receives around $25 for every barrel of oil sold from South Sudan, according to official figures.

South Sudan produces around 162,000 barrels per day, which is transported by pipeline to Port Sudan and then shipped to global markets.

“There are enough (oil) reserves to last the country’s needs for up to 10 days,” Sudan’s oil ministry said in a statement.

It warned the export pipeline could sustain damage after demonstrators prevented a vessel from loading crude.

Protests against the October 2020 deal have rocked east Sudan since last week.

On Sept. 17, demonstrators impeded access to the docks in Port Sudan.

On Friday, demonstrators blocked the entrance to the airport and a bridge linking Kassala state with the rest of the country.

The unrest comes as Sudan grapples with chronic economic problems inherited from the Bashir regime.

Shortly after it began, the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said it had foiled a coup attempt by supporters of the ousted president.


Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies
Yahya Kabbara, a Lebanese math teacher, chose his own method to fight bullying by swimming 5.5 km to a rocky island off Lebanon’s coast to prove that “being overweight doesn’t impede oneself from notching achievements’. (Supplied/Yahya Nabil Kabbara)
Updated 25 September 2021

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies
  • Double Ph.D., Yahya Kabbara, was bullied as a youth for being obese until he ‘notched a physical success’
  • “Classmates and friends never allowed me to play any sport with them because, according to them, my obesity always made them lose,” he told Arab News

DUBAI: Yahya Nabil Kabbara has always been perceived as academically distinguished, but not athletically, due to being subjected to nightmarish waves of bullying over his obesity since childhood.
A Lebanese math teacher, Kabbara chose his own method to fight bullying by swimming 5.5 km to a rocky island off Lebanon’s coast to prove that “being overweight doesn’t impede oneself from notching achievements.”
Since a teenager, friends and classmates never allowed Kabbara to play any sport with them because they said his “obesity makes them lose.”
“That left a scar in me and pushed me to set that personal challenge to swim to the furthest island off Tripoli’s seashore,” Kabbara told Arab News.
Born in the northern Lebanese city in 1987, the 34-year-old tutor currently teaches math for secondary classes at a public high school.
Commonly known as “Araneb Island” or “Rabbit’s Island,” his target is the biggest of three flat rocky islands that constitute the Palm Islands Nature Reserve. The three islands’ area is around 4.2 sq km.
On Sunday, Sept. 19, Kabbara put on a pair of paddles, jumped into the ocean and swam for nearly four-and-a-half hours until he reached Rabbit’s Island.
Having once weighed over 140kg, Kabbara has been training seriously by swimming, walking, hiking, mountain climbing and preparing himself mentally and physically to be able to fulfill what he describes as a “personal challenge and a message to all those who bullied him for being overweight.”
He added: “Classmates and friends never allowed me to play any sport with them because, according to them, my obesity always made them lose. That hurt me a lot … it left an aching scar in me that I always stayed alone. My family once thought I had autism,” he said.
Coming from a hardworking family, Kabbara started teaching at the age of 14 because he adores the profession and needed to earn pocket money to support his father.
Despite having two doctorates, he could not land a university job because, according to him, “you need a wasta (support from a politician or influential person), meanwhile I’ve never been affiliated to or supported any Lebanese politician.”
In 2015, Kabbara obtained a Ph.D. in applied Mathematics at the Lebanese University while also picking up a doctorate from Paris-Est Creteil University in France.  
The father of a nine-month-old daughter said the fact that he was constantly bullied at youth pushed him to work “seriously and really hard” on his fitness to prove to others that being overweight “should not cripple oneself from fulfilling their goals.”
“At a certain point of my life I realized that I have fulfilled a lot academically and that the time has come for me to accomplish something physical,” he said, reiterating that he set up his swimming challenge “to prove to himself and others that with perseverance any goal is attainable.”
Kabbara explained that the idea to swim to Rabbit’s Island was like a dream to him since childhood.
When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) surfaced in early 2020, the 34-year-old had still been suffering from obesity and feared that lockdowns would force him to gain more weight and feel “desolate and depressed.”
“But I told myself ‘no.’ I walked as much as possible and swam a lot after borrowing my cousin’s paddles. I love swimming so I swam 300 meters, then 500. In November I swam to the nearest island, Al-Ballan. It took me an hour. Then I went to the second island of Al-Rmayleh,” said Kabbara.
“All I wanted to do is accomplish my goal and prove to myself and others that everything is possible,” concluded Kabbara, who said that he had dropped his weight to 109kg.


Sudan says countries must cooperate on vaccines

Sudan says countries must cooperate on vaccines
Updated 25 September 2021

Sudan says countries must cooperate on vaccines

Sudan says countries must cooperate on vaccines
  • Hamdok avoided any mention of a reported coup attempt that was stifled by military leaders
  • He urged Ethiopia and other downstream countries to come to a lasting agreement

UNITED NATIONS: The prime minister of Sudan’s transitional government urged world leaders on Saturday to work together to get developing countries more COVID-19 vaccines.
In a speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok echoed similar statements from other speakers when he said that making sure countries like Sudan get enough shots is the only way to ensure the safety of the rest of the world.
Sudan has only received a fraction of the vaccines it needs, according to official figures. Since March, the Sudanese government has vaccinated approximately 830,000 people out of 45 million. So far, Sudan has recorded more than 37,500 cases and 2800 deaths from the coronavirus. The true numbers are believed to be far higher given the scarcity of testing.
Hamdok, a respected former official with the UN Economic Commission for Africa, also said his country had achieved much in its transition to democratic rule over the past two years. However, he avoided any mention of a reported coup attempt that was stifled by military leaders. Sudanese authorities reported Tuesday that a group of soldiers tried to take power, but said the attempt failed and the country’s ruling council and military remain in control.
The development underscored the fragility of Sudan’s path to democracy, more than two years after the military’s overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar Al-Bashir amid a public uprising against his three-decade rule.
Hamdok also spoke out about his concerns over Ethiopia’s massive Renaissance Dam, built on one of the Nile River’s main tributaries, and urged Ethiopia and other downstream countries to come to a lasting agreement. He said that his country had already experienced adverse effects of the dam’s partial filling, completed in phases this and last summer.


Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 
Updated 25 September 2021

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 
  • Putin criticized the presence of foreign troops without a UN mandate last week during a meeting with Assad
  • Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has urged Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syrian soil immediately

ANKARA: Turkey has deployed more troops to northwestern Syria as a deterrent against any major offensive by Russian-backed Syrian forces, ahead of a meeting between the Turkish and Russian leaders next week.

Ankara is concerned that an escalation in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in northwest Syria, would push a new wave of refugees toward Turkey, which has been hosting about 4 million Syrians since the start of the conflict a decade ago.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to raise this issue during his meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Sept. 29. To what extent Russia’s position will find a common ground with Ankara is still unclear.

Last week, during a meeting between Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Russian president criticized the presence of foreign troops without a UN mandate.

Three Turkish soldiers were killed on Sept. 11 in Idlib as the Syrian regime forces have intensified their attacks.

“Russia is frustrated with Turkey’s unwillingness to expel Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham from Idlib and is using its warplanes as well as Syrian ground forces to put pressure on Turkey,” Samuel Ramani, a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, told Arab News.

Russia is holding Turkey to its 2018 commitment to separate radicals such as HTS, the dominant group in Idlib, from other rebels in Idlib. But Ankara rejects claims that it has failed to deliver on its promise.

HTS has been distancing itself from Al-Qaeda and rebranding itself as a moderate rebel group — an image makeover before the international community. But it is still designated by the US, the UN Security Council and Turkey as a terror group.

“Turkey does not view a limited escalation of this kind as a major cross-border threat but would certainly fear a refugee influx if Assad and Putin carry out a much larger assault on Idlib, which mirrored the events of late 2019 and early 2020,” Ramani said. “So Turkey’s troops are there to deter such a scenario from taking place and ensure that the status quo holds until the Putin-Erdogan meeting.”

However, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has urged Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syrian soil immediately and said he considered Turkish presence an act of occupation.

Ramani said that in the past Putin-Erdogan meetings have often reduced the conflict in Syria, for example after the Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 and Operation Spring Shield in March 2020: “So the hope is that this will happen again.”

On Sept. 24, Erdogan said he expects Russia to change its approach toward Syria as the Syrian regime poses a threat to Turkey along the southern border.

At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Erdogan addressed the Syrian crisis, saying that “as a country that protected human dignity in the Syrian crisis, we no longer have the potential nor the tolerance to absorb new immigration waves.”

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara think tank ORSAM, said Turkey attaches importance of retaining its place in Syrian game. 

“If it completely withdraws from the region, it will stay out of the endgame and will not have a say when a political process in Syria begins,” Orhan told Arab News.

According to Orhan, Turkey is also concerned about the presence of foreign fighters and radical elements in Idlib.

“If there were a regime offensive, they would be likely to flock toward the Turkish border and would pose a security threat not only to Turkey but to the global community,” he said.

Experts say that although it exposes the limits of their cooperation, Turkish-Russian relations will likely survive this latest round of escalation as both sides have too much to lose if their relationship is damaged.

Orhan says the deployment of Turkish troops ahead of Putin-Erdogan meeting is a symbolic move to gain leverage at the negotiation table.

“Although Russia supports the Assad regime, it also takes notice of Turkish presence in the region, as well as of cooperation in the fields of energy and defense industry. It doesn’t want to undermine them, yet tries to use Idlib card as a bargaining chip each time there is a crisis in bilateral ties,” he said.

Russia reportedly conducted about 200 aerial attacks against Idlib in September. Some of the attacks targeted zones close to Turkey’s military posts in the province. Turkey has about 80 military bases and observation posts in Idlib.

“Although Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies have met in the past, Russia has been pushing Turkey for years to open a diplomatic communication channel with the Syrian regime. But Ankara is not willing to take this step. I expect that Erdogan-Putin meeting will de-escalate the tension in Idlib, but both leaders will test their determination before sitting at the negotiation table,” Orhan said.


Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 

Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 
Updated 25 September 2021

Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 

Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 
  • Queues outside gas stations persist, along with disputes that often descend into physical violence
  • Some people provide “waiting” services, staying in the car instead of the vehicle owner to fill the tank up and earning up to LBP100,000 for doing so

BEIRUT: A Syrian refugee in Minieh, north Lebanon, died on Saturday after accidentally swallowing a large quantity of gasoline while siphoning it from his car in a black market fuel operation. He was taken to hospital but could not be saved.

Abdulrahman Darwish, the representative for the Relief Associations’ Federation in Danniye, said the man used to make deals on the black market.

Lebanon has been suffering from an acute fuel crisis during the past few months.

“He went to gas stations every day, where he waited in the queue for hours to get 40 liters of gasoline to later withdraw this quantity from his car and sell it on the black market at a higher price to those who do not want to wait in queues,” he told Arab News. “The black market's activities have thrived during the crisis. The youth, Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees have found themselves unemployed amid the harsh economic crisis of Lebanon. They are looking to earn money at all costs to secure food, medicines and milk for their families, and have found a golden opportunity on the black market.”

A security source told Arab News that authorities had observed a decline in the north’s robbery rate in the past few weeks, where “thugs had focused on the black market” instead of theft because it was very profitable.

“Every day, tens of them gather outside gas stations forming gangs to get gasoline and later sell it on the black market. The unemployed youth has found an opportunity to earn money by resorting to illegal means,” the source said.

According to the price list issued by the Economy Ministry on Wednesday, fuel will be sold according to the dollar exchange rate, with $1 worth LBP14,000.

Queues outside gas stations persist, along with disputes that often descend into physical violence and even shooting.

Some people had expected a decline in black market activities after the availability of fuel in the market and the gasoline price being liberalized.

However, job opportunities have emerged amid this mess. Some people provide “waiting” services, staying in the car instead of the vehicle owner to fill the tank up and earning up to LBP100,000 for doing so.

Some reserve a place outside gas stations during the night and sell the spot in the morning for those waiting at the back.

Fadi Abu Shakra, a representative of the Fuel Distributors’ Union, said the queues seemed shorter on Monday as fuel had become available and imports were ongoing.

“The activities of the black market traders who have exhausted us are likely to drop down,” he told Arab News.

The economic crisis in Lebanon that peaked in 2019 after the depletion of its financial resources has led to a complete economic collapse, where hundreds of businesses shut down and thousands of employees were laid off.

The latest report from the Central Administration of Statistics said the unemployment rate in 2020 increased to 55 percent for those in informal employment and 45 percent for workers in the formal economy.

The unemployment rate among college students reached 35.7 percent, and the highest rates of unemployment were noted in Akkar, Central Bekaa and Aley.

The International Labor Organization noted the extent of “informal employment and vulnerability among the most deprived Lebanese citizens, as well as Syrian refugees in 2021.”

According to Labor Ministry estimates, unemployment in 2020 increased to about 36 percent and is estimated to reach 41.4 percent by the end of 2021.

Statistics from the National Social Security Fund from the start of 2020 until Feb. 2021 indicated that 40,000 people who were registered with the fund had exited the labor market.

Darwish said: “Syrian refugees in Lebanon were severely affected by the economic crisis. Some refugees are selling their food rations to buy medicine or visit a doctor.”