Saudi to showcase arts in reform drive

Jeddah: Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it plans to showcase the arts and grow its media industry to counter negative stereotypes of the kingdom, whose rights record is regularly criticised abroad.

The initiatives are part of the wide-ranging National Transformation Programme (NTP) which sets targets for diversifying the oil-dependent economy.

“The intention also is to transform the society”, Culture and Information Minister Adel al-Turaifi told reporters on the sidelines of a briefing about the NTP, which was endorsed by cabinet late Monday.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute Islamic monarchy, has no public cinemas or theatres, though private showings do take place.

But under the NTP a Royal Arts Complex would be developed, as well as a Media City.

Although small art exhibitions have occurred, the Wahhabi Islamic thought on which the kingdom is founded forbids paintings of the human form.

Turaifi told a press conference that although some Saudi artists and performers have exhibited and gained popularity abroad, they “did not find the platform and space to support them” at home.

That will change with the Arts Complex which “would help convey a picture of Saudi Arabia to the world,” he said in the press conference with other ministers.

Similarly, the Media City will develop the production skills of young Saudis and create local content which so far is “very limited”, Turaifi said.

“What we’re aiming to do is actually to provide institutions that can display their work, that can support them, that can provide them with grants, scholarships, to pursue their dreams of creating art,” he said.

The NTP targets 16,100 media and related jobs by 2020, up from 10,000 now.

Underlying the project is a goal of improving the kingdom’s image and promoting its culture, the minister said.

“During the last few decades accusations and stereotyping was instilled about Saudi Arabia,” he said.

– Reform drive –

Asked whether the level of freedom of speech in the kingdom allows arts and media to flourish, he said Saudi newspapers “every day” carry criticisms of government programmes.

Feedback is also important for the NTP’s success, he said.

In an unusual display of public accessibility, government ministers every night this week are answering questions from local and foreign reporters on national television.

The NTP is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform drive led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 30, to wean the world’s largest oil exporter off its traditional source of revenue.

Saudi Arabia ranks 165 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

The case of blogger Raif Badawi, who promoted free speech, generated worldwide concern. Arrested in 2012, he is serving 10 years in jail and has received 50 lashes of a 1,000 lash sentence.

At the same press conference, Minister of Transport Suleiman al-Hamdan said he wants to lower the kingdom’s “painful” road death toll under the NTP.

World Health Organization data show that Saudi Arabia, whose oil wealth led to a proliferation of cars and highways, has a road death rate comparable to that of impoverished African countries.

“The percentage of car accidents is very high and the percentage of deaths is very high,” Hamdan said.

“This is catastrophic.”

Reckless driving and minor crashes are an every day sight on the kingdom’s streets.

Hamdan said intensified education along with better policing and ambulance services are among the measures to reduce the toll.

More broadly, the NTP aims to link all of the kingdom’s transport networks to exploit its geographic position between Europe, Asia and Africa, becoming a “first class” logistics hub, he said.