How GCC states can preserve their cultural heritage
From the earliest ages, societies have gone through a variety of transformational shocks, such as industrial revolutions and pandemics. Amid today’s global changes, including shifts in the political, economic and social landscape, coupled with the development of technology, transport and communications, countries must now change their strategies and move beyond their own borders in the fight for growth and relevance.
This globalization phenomenon has caused unprecedented acceleration and intensification in the worldwide flow of capital, labor and information. The real question that governments will need to answer is how to balance participating in a global economy with maintaining their own cultural heritage and diversity — a fragile but essential tipping point.
Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and bestowed on future generations. Culture and heritage both reflect and shape a country’s values, beliefs and aspirations, thereby defining a people’s national identity. Preserving our cultural heritage keeps our integrity as a people.
Millennials and Generation Z are most directly affected by globalization and are central to the current debates about identity. These young people are experiencing globalization every day through their employment patterns, their friendship groups, their use of the internet, and the broader cultural influences on their lifestyles. Globalization is especially relevant in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that have experienced a “youth bulge,” with more than half of the population under the age of 25. The GCC’s youth are more educated, more connected and more mobile than ever before. But because of globalization, they are losing touch with their cultural heritage, traditions and identity — being eager to trade Arabic for English, a thoub for a pair of jeans, and the ghutra for a stylish new haircut.
So how do you preserve heritage, tradition and culture in this new era?
Cultural heritage is an essential — but fragile — factor in maintaining diversity in the face of globalization. Preserving a country’s heritage is about the transfer of knowledge, skills and meaning. In other words, preservation focuses on transmitting cultural heritage from generation to generation rather than producing its concrete manifestations, such as a dance or a song.
First, governments should take stock of their tangible and intangible assets across cultural subsectors such as film, culinary arts, visual arts and fashion, and ensure proper storage and archiving for future generations. For example, museums are digitizing their collections and making them accessible for international audiences, including by using virtual reality, augmented reality and 3DTV. To preserve its rich and long history, Saudi Arabia launched the Al-Masmak Digital Museum to keep alive the Kingdom’s collective memories since the 1940s, creating better access for today’s Saudis and those to come.
Cultural heritage is an essential — but fragile — factor in maintaining diversity in the face of globalization.
Karim Bassil and Patrick Samaha
Governments should also build on their assets to develop and produce new content. For example, the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi recently launched a virtual program in collaboration with the Guggenheim museum to support Abu Dhabi-based artists in developing new content. This program aims to nurture the creative process of local artists through a series of virtual workshops led by residents of the Guggenheim.
Another focus should be on education to preserve and promote the local culture and heritage. Appreciation for our cultural heritage should be communicated through an integrated education approach designed for a global society. For example, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia established the Royal Institute of Traditional Arts and is in the process of creating other new institutes, such as a film academy and theater academy.
In addition, governments should embrace local talent and help strengthen local arts and cultural values. They should support people who are pursuing artistic and creative expression by creating a healthy environment for them to prosper with local regulations, funding and international transfer programs. This usually happens through integrated efforts that aim to build a conducive ecosystem. For example, the UAE Centennial 2071 strategy includes a central pillar of becoming the “happiest society in the world” by putting culture and heritage at the forefront of the nation’s transformational plans and providing local artists with the right platforms and tools to prosper. Meanwhile, the Saudi Ministry of Culture has established 11 commissions to oversee, preserve and nurture all subsectors of Saudi Arabia’s cultural ecosystem, such as the Film Commission and the Architecture and Design Commission.
There is always a risk that some aspects of a country’s cultural heritage could disappear if it is not helped. Safeguarding and preserving our heritage isn’t about freezing our culture in some pure or primordial form. Preserving a nation’s cultural heritage is all about transferring knowledge, skills and meaning — from your grandmother’s favorite recipes to a nation’s most prominent landmark.
• Karim Bassil is a partner with Kearney and is a seasoned adviser to some of the largest ministries in the MENA region, with a particular focus on tourism, entertainment and culture.
• Patrick Samaha is a senior manager with Kearney and has more than 10 years of experience working with various government and public institutions in the MENA region, focusing on culture and tourism development.