Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar gain the cultural upper hand with heavy investments in the creative economy

Special Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar gain the cultural upper hand with heavy investments in the creative economy
Louvre Abu Dhabi. (Supplied/Yiorgis Yerolymbos)
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Updated 13 January 2023

Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar gain the cultural upper hand with heavy investments in the creative economy

Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar gain the cultural upper hand with heavy investments in the creative economy
  • Three Gulf Arab states have invested billions in cultural enterprises, museums, exhibition spaces and music venues
  • The investments are paying off as the countries enjoy a cultural renaissance propelled by state-led and private patronage

DUBAI: After the lockdowns, closures and travel bans of the COVID-19 pandemic, which devastated tourism, entertainment and concert-going, 2022 saw what might be described as a mad dash to make up for lost time.

Even as the prospects of a post-pandemic economic recovery dim for the rest of the world owing to the war in Ukraine, the Gulf energy-exporting countries — particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — are plowing back a good portion of their windfall profits into activities in the field of culture.

Over the past decade, these countries have invested billions in cultural enterprises, establishing new museums, exhibition spaces and music venues to boost tourism, economic growth and instill a sense of national pride.

The 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum. (David Levene)

These investments appear to be paying off, with the Gulf states enjoying a cultural renaissance, propelled by both state-led and private patronage. This at a time when governments elsewhere in the world are slashing their arts budgets.

In the UK, for instance, leading galleries and museums have seen drastic cuts to their Arts Council England funding for 2023, while the former Arab cultural capitals of Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut, devastated by wars, instability and talent drain, are today mere shadows of their former selves.

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched Vision 2030 in 2016, he placed culture and the forging of a new creative economy at the center of the Kingdom’s development agenda.

The plan was to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil and gas and to implement economic, educational and administrative reforms along with social transformation.

Since it was established in 2018, the Ministry of Culture has spearheaded a growing roster of cultural events around the Kingdom and internationally. In 2021, it reported that Saudi Arabia had hosted 100 cultural events led by 25 new cultural organizations.

Among its recent and forthcoming highlights are the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, first held in December 2021, and the Islamic Arts Biennale, due to open on Jan. 23 in the Hajj Terminal at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport.

According to the ministry’s “Report on the State of Culture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2021: Culture in Public Spaces,” some 10.5 million domestic tourists visited the nation’s cultural sites in the first 10 months of 2021 — exceeding the 8.5 million total for 2019.

In December, the ministry opened a cultural center, Fenaa Alawwal, at the former headquarters of the Kingdom’s first commercial bank in Riyadh. It established the center as part of its effort to fulfill the Vision 2030 goal of “encouraging culture as a way of life.”

The center, which will be used for a range of cultural activities, aims to bring together Saudi and international creatives.

The 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum opened in Doha last year. (David Levene)

While the idea of a renaissance signals a flourishing of artistic activity, it also points to the idea of breaking down barriers, providing a platform for the free exchange of ideas.

“In history, there are many turning points which have been important to artistic movements, from the Renaissance in Italy to the Nahda in the Arab world, all of which have been characterized by immense creativity and a blossoming artistic scene,” Manuel Rabate, director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, told Arab News.

“It is undeniable that the Gulf has undergone significant cultural development in recent years, and this is powered by continuous investment, cross-cultural collaborations, and recognition of the importance of culture and arts in building a deeper understanding and fostering dialogue.”

The social transformation in the Kingdom is nothing if not palpable. From gigantic raves in the desert to festivals such as Riyadh Seasons, art biennales and film schools, the process is inspiring creative thought and intercultural dialogue.

“For the community there’s certainly an increase in the variety, quantity and quality of art exhibitions in every major city in Saudi,” Qaswra Hafez, founder and director of Jeddah’s Hafez Gallery, told Arab News.

“We are contributing like we always have, by producing professionally curated exhibitions, mainly for Saudi artists, and by facilitating exposure for our artists through participating in local, regional and international art fairs.”

Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Qatar has its own state-led cultural plans. For more than a decade, Qatar has been investing billions in its cultural scene, which has developed in parallel with the country’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Its goal, like that of Saudi Arabia, is to move its economy away from an overreliance on petroleum and natural gas and toward tourism and cultural activities.

At the helm of Qatar’s culture drive is Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani, a global art patron and collector and sister of the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

In March 2022, Sheikha Mayassa announced that Qatar would build three new museums — the Lusail Museum, Art Mill Museum, and the Qatar Auto Museum.


• Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have scaled up their cultural plans for the coming year.

• Domestic tourism in Saudi Arabia witnessed annual growth rates of 4.5 percent between 2017 and 2021.

The new venues will be operated by Qatar Museums, a government entity founded in 2006 to oversee cultural institutions, including the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Islamic Art.

“Culture is the most powerful tool. It has no religion, no language; it’s just open,” wrote Sheikha Al-Mayassa in her book, “The Power of Culture,” published in 2022. But, as she stressed in her 2014 TED talk, art and culture are also about building a national identity.

“We are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development,” she said at the time. “Art becomes a very important part of our national identity.”

Reem Al-Thani, acting deputy CEO of exhibitions and marketing and director of centralized exhibitions at Qatar Museums, says there is a strong desire to share the nation’s cultural identity with the outside world.

“We want to present our history and the larger context of our nation; it is not just that all of sudden we are here because of oil,” she told Arab News.

“This is who we are. This is our history, this is where we come from, these are our traditions, our wisdoms and our intellect.

“It is undeniable that the Gulf has undergone significant cultural development in recent years,” said Manuel Rabate, Director, Louvre Abu Dhabi. (Supplied)

“It is also the role of the museums to present this in a very succinct manner. We also want to make sure the present Qatari generation understands their past.”

For more than a decade, the UAE has been pursuing a similar strategy, while at the same time trying to attract big-name international galleries to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saadiyat Cultural District in the UAE capital is home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2017 as part of a $27 billion tourist and cultural development project on Saadiyat Island

It is also home to the Guggenheim, due for completion in 2025, the Abrahamic Family House, due in 2023, and the Zayed National Museum, due in 2025.

“All of these museums represent the UAE’s commitment to cultural development and its desire to be a global leader in the arts,” Rabate told Arab News.

The UAE, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has implemented state-funded plans to grow the cultural sector and its contribution to the economy.

In 2018, the UAE’s cultural authorities agreed to a country-wide cultural strategy that would work in “a more strategic, sustainable and ambitious direction,” dubbed the Culture Agenda 2031.

The UAE’s National Strategy for the Cultural and Creative Industries, launched in 2021, aims to increase the contribution of the cultural and creative industries’ sector by 5 percent of gross domestic product by 2031.

Among its principal aims are “strengthening the UAE’s position on the global cultural and creativity map” and to “inspire creative thinking and attract cultural talents and creative entrepreneurs from around the world.”

The road map places a strong emphasis on business and entrepreneurship with objectives that include “attracting freelancers and creative start-ups to set up, live and work in the UAE.”

MISK Art Week in Riyadh. (Supplied)

The private art sector in Dubai in particular has been spurred on by the arrival of foreign players. Of note are the number of international galleries that have opened in recent years, including that of the French art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who opened his first space in Dubai in 2022.

Others, such as Efie Gallery, Dubai’s first African-owned contemporary art gallery, was launched in 2021 with a mission “to be at the forefront of the rapidly burgeoning contemporary African art scene worldwide,” according to its co-founder Kwame Mintah.

“The selection of Dubai as our first location is due to the relative nascence of the local art scene here, which in turn has offered the perfect terrain for expansion and innovation,” he told Arab News.

Foreign gallerists are not only flocking to Dubai to participate in the UAE’s cultural expansion; they are drawn to the welcoming business environment opening up across the Gulf.

“It is the ease of doing business here — probably easier than anywhere else in the world — as well as the huge government support that made us open here,” Indian collector and art entrepreneur Tushar Jiwarajka, who launched Mumbai’s Volte Art Projects in Dubai in September 2021, told Arab News.

“Dubai offers a relatively blank canvas in terms of its cultural landscape — it’s one of the few places in the world where one can actually help shape the cultural landscape.”

Drones and high tech help in disaster search missions 

Drones and high tech help in disaster search missions 
Updated 15 sec ago

Drones and high tech help in disaster search missions 

Drones and high tech help in disaster search missions 
  • Can modern developments provide solutions, relief to earthquake-hit Turkiye, Syria?

RIYADH: The world continues to watch in despair the devastation caused by two earthquakes — measuring 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale  — that struck southeastern Turkiye and Syria early on Monday morning.

With the combined death toll surpassing 11,000 people by Wednesday, international aid agencies, humanitarian groups, military forces, government and private sector bodies have all been involved in providing help to the regions.

One area supplying some answers has been modern technology.

Drones, which are increasingly known for their role as weapons in modern warfare, are also useful tools during natural disasters such as earthquakes.

“Drones for sure play an important role in Turkiye as we speak,” Henk Jan Gerzee, chief product officer at the Digital Container Shipping Association, told Arab News during the LEAP conference in Riyadh on Wednesday.

Gerzee, who was on the panel looking at “Drones and Autonomous Vehicles,” added: “Firstly, drones can provide a clearer picture of what has happened.

“Drones are equipped with ultra-high-definition cameras. They can also be equipped with heat sensors and detection, and thus detect people.

“They can deliver medicine and smaller pieces of cargo. They can also detect dangerous gases, like methane.” 

Dr. Jassim Haji, president of the Artificial Intelligence Society, who also took part in the discussion, underlined the role AI can play in such disasters, including forecasting extreme events, developing hazard maps, and assisting in situational awareness and decision support.

NASA technology can help in hearing the heartbeats of individuals trapped under debris and rubble. Its technology has frequently been used in the aftermath of earthquakes.

In 2015 the NASA FINDER tool was able to locate four men buried underneath mud, brick, wood and other debris following an earthquake in the Nepalese village of Chautara.

The same technology was also used in 2017 during an earthquake measuring 7.1 in Mexico City.

The UN utilized its emergency mapping satellite service, a live map that shows in real time the damage caused by an earthquake and its level of impact, within hours on Monday.

However, political conflict can have the last word when it comes to getting aid quickly to regions hit by natural disasters.

A resident in northeastern Syria, who spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity, said: “The main issue is that aid has become politicized, so even if this tech is available, it is likely it won’t reach these areas.”

Roj Mousa, a Syrian journalist from Afrin, told Arab News: “All of our friends and relatives are under the rubble now in Afrin and Jindires.

“I haven’t had a moment to rest since the earthquake happened. I speak with my relatives all the time.

“There is no aid coming to these areas — no water, no food, no rescue. The cities are now further devastated.

“The people helping to pull out the rubble are civilians doing so with their bare hands.

“All the aid is being blocked by members of the Turkish-controlled Syrian militia.”

Mousa added that small cameras used by doctors to see inside the rubble were helpful, but getting such technology into occupied areas was difficult.

‘We support women’s empowerment as Vision 2030 goal,’ says US Embassy

‘We support women’s empowerment as Vision 2030 goal,’ says US Embassy
Updated 08 February 2023

‘We support women’s empowerment as Vision 2030 goal,’ says US Embassy

‘We support women’s empowerment as Vision 2030 goal,’ says US Embassy

RIYADH: The US Embassy in Riyadh welcomed US Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of the US Transportation Command, as she met female members of the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces, saying that it supports women’s empowerment as a Vision 2030 goal.

Van Ovost, who is on a tour of the Kingdom, expressed her happiness at exchanging ideas and sharing experiences with Saudi Arabian Armed Forces female members.

“Ending my day energized after speaking with Saudi Armed Forces service members. We talked about one of my favorite things — mentorship. No one overcomes challenges alone. We all need someone to help us stay with it, remain confident, and provide opportunities to let us shine,” Van Ovost tweeted with photos of her meeting, which was retweeted by the US Embassy.

US Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of the US Transportation Command, interacts with female members of the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces. (Supplied)

The US Embassy also tweeted: “Lt. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost @USTRANSCOM_CDR Commander, US Logistics Command @US_TRANSCOM focuses on women’s empowerment and STEM education. The US government proudly supports women’s empowerment as a Saudi Vision 2030 goal.”

She also visited Prince Sultan Military Air Base and the Apple Developer Academy in Riyadh, which is supporting female developers and entrepreneurs in the Kingdom.

“#TogetherWeDeliver! @usairforce Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost,@USTRANSCOM_CDR, visited #TeamPSAB, where she learned more about the 378th AEW mission, our strong partnership with Saudi Arabia, and engaged with US service members who keep the mission successful,” tweeted the embassy.

In another tweet the US Embassy said: “Lt. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost @USTRANSCOM_CDR Commander of the US Logistics Transport Command @US_TRANSCOM toured the Apple Developers Academy @ADA_TWQ during her visit to the headquarters of Princess Noura University @_PNU_KSA. The US Government proudly supports women’s empowerment.”

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arab News sister publication, Van Ovost said that her first visit to Riyadh as commander of US Transportation Command focused on consolidating the strong relationship with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, in the national interest of Saudi Arabia and the US, as well as to achieve security goals.

The US Central Command is working with Saudi Arabia to establish an integrated air defense system to counter missiles and unmanned aircraft, among other technological initiatives, she said.

Van Ovost described US military relations with the Kingdom as solid, saying that the two countries fought side by side during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and that their partnership is a cornerstone of security and stability in the Middle East.

New initiative to empower 10,000 Jeddah students

New initiative to empower 10,000 Jeddah students
Updated 08 February 2023

New initiative to empower 10,000 Jeddah students

New initiative to empower 10,000 Jeddah students

JEDDAH: Integrated solutions provider Johnson Controls Arabia has announced its participation as founding partner in Saudi Arabia’s new Future Industrialists initiative.

Implemented by the Association for Distinguished Initiatives, General Directorate of Education in Jeddah, and the Industrial Council of the Chamber of Commerce in Jeddah, the company announced that it was supporting the scheme as part of its strategic commitment toward empowering young talent in the Kingdom.

The initiative will involve more than 10,000 male and female high school students competing in three categories for awards worth SR100,000 ($26,650).

Thirty student winners will be offered summer internships at the manufacturing plants of companies taking part in the initiative — including the YORK Manufacturing Complex — and training sessions will be run for 1,000 students.

Johnson Controls Arabia provides services including heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment, fire and security systems, and building management systems and controls throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.

Mohanad Al-Shaikh, chief executive officer of Johnson Controls Arabia, said: “We are proud to be the founding partners of the Future Industrialists initiative as part of our ongoing commitment and efforts toward fueling innovation and sustainability, especially in the development of talent and future leaders, in partnership with the public sector.

“As a leader in the vital industrial sector on a local and global level, we will be introducing students to the latest innovative and integrated industrial processes and mechanisms used at our YORK Manufacturing Complex, YORK’s largest manufacturing facility in the region.

“Johnson Controls Arabia continues to work toward its long-term objectives of shaping and preparing students with the needed skills and experience to excel in the competitive industrial labor market,” he added.

The Future Industrialists initiative’s creative category award will recognize students who present distinctive ideas to raise a factory’s financial or marketing productivity through the suggestions of quality products.

The discoverer category will reward students with ideas for improvement of daily operations, productivity, and quality assurance, while the ambassador class will celebrate those who develop interesting content on factory output, distinctive products, and the company’s role in servicing the community.

Targeting students at public secondary schools in Jeddah, the initiative aims to broaden young talents’ vision and knowledge through conducting field visits and training at local firms and manufacturing facilities, while educating them on the Kingdom’s industrial potential, mainly in Jeddah.

In alignment with Vision 2030 goals, the Future Industrialists initiative aims to boost the economy through motivating students to join the industrial sector in partnership with the private sector.

TONOMUS launches competition to find high-tech solutions for a billion people

TONOMUS launches competition to find high-tech solutions for a billion people
Updated 08 February 2023

TONOMUS launches competition to find high-tech solutions for a billion people

TONOMUS launches competition to find high-tech solutions for a billion people
  • NEOM subsidiary seeks proposals in energy, food, mobility
  • Aim to foster global entrepreneurship, new ways of living

RIYADH: TONOMUS, the cognitive multinational subsidiary of NEOM, has announced the launch of its second venture startup competition at LEAP23 in Riyadh.

Led by the firm’s TONOMUS Venture Studio, the competition started on Feb. 6, and is titled “The Next Billion.” It is an initiative that invites participants to consider new technologies and innovations that a billion people in the world would require for energy, food and mobility.

“We’re looking to recreate that here just like they did in Silicon Valley,” said Beverly Rider, CEO of TONOMUS Venture Studio.

The aim is to foster global entrepreneurship that will nurture the environment and create new ways of community living.

Rider added: “TONOMUS Venture Studio has a bunch of different objectives. So it’s a programmatic display of how you bring entrepreneurship and startups to our region. So what we found when we got NEOM is that one of the things we were missing was an entrepreneurial ecosystem and the small businesses that really fuel the economy, and they take the large companies and create the value around them.”

Rider said Saudi Arabia’s entrepreneurial vision and diversification of the economy stemming from Vision 2030 makes it an interesting hub prospect in the world.

“Come to the Kingdom? So actually, you would think that that would be the hard part, but that’s been our easy part. Everybody wants to come. The great thing about having a recession in the rest of the world is that people are really interested in looking into new horizons and new geographies. But more importantly than that, the megaprojects have given us an opportunity to basically, you know, start from the bottom and work our way up,” said Rider.

Up to 20 semifinalist teams will receive individualized coaching by experts from TONOMUS Venture Studio, and up to four winning teams will be invited to a 12-week program to incubate their ideas. The competition will welcome submissions until April 12, 2023.

Rider stressed that creating a community is key. “We asked people to come and talk to us about these solutions, their startup, or their ideas. So at about 100 people showed up yesterday. We’re going to do six more of them next year.”

TONOMUS Venture Studio comprises both established and emerging entrepreneurs. It aims to cement NEOM’s reputation as the epicenter of innovation, and the Kingdom as a place where the world’s brightest minds and top tech talent can bring their ideas to life.

Who’s Who: Abdullah Bahanshal, Lenovo Group country manager for KSA

Who’s Who: Abdullah Bahanshal, Lenovo Group country manager for KSA
Updated 09 February 2023

Who’s Who: Abdullah Bahanshal, Lenovo Group country manager for KSA

Who’s Who: Abdullah Bahanshal, Lenovo Group country manager for KSA

Abdullah Bahanshal was appointed Lenovo Infrastructure Solutions Group country manager for Saudi Arabia in January, and is responsible for managing and expanding company revenue in the Kingdom.

Bahanshal has over 20 years of experience in the information and communications technology industry, especially in leadership, strategic sales and development.

Before joining Lenovo ISG, he was country sales leader for the productivity solutions and services sales team at Honeywell International Inc. for two years.

He also focused on end-user relationships through channel parties across the Kingdom, while also developing country growth strategic plans.

Before that, he worked with global ICT brands, including Huawei, Cisco Systems, and Cerner. During his time at previous ICT firms, he won awards for performance, sales and strategy, and also became one of the first Saudis certified by the International Coaching Federation.

Bahanshal holds a bachelor’s degree of science in pharmaceutical science and a master’s of science in health informatics from King Saud University in Riyadh. 

He is also certified in project and program management, and is a certified coach specializing in personal and career coaching. He is currently pursuing his master of science studies in psychology. 

Bahanshal has also volunteered with Monsha’at as a business mentor to help and support entrepreneurs.

Alaa Bawab, Lenovo’s general manager of Middle East and Africa, said: “Abdullah brings with him years of senior experience in the ICT industry and has worked with some of the biggest names. His knowledge, talent and skill make him a vital part of our expansion into the Kingdom. We believe in his leadership experience and are confident that he can take forward our presence in the Kingdom to new heights and establish Lenovo as an industry leader.”