Two years ago, I wrote this article advocating, among other things, for the opening up of the notoriously opaque Saudi Kingdom, and engaging in cultural diplomacy as a way of building bridges with the West. Since last year, I noticed a small, tentative, but softly growing trend in the number of Saudi artists of various types making their way into the United States. Prior to the fall of 2016, I could not name even one such event.
Abdulnasser Gharem was recently featured for his exhibit in Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and San Francisco, in September 2016, likewise showcased contemporary art from Saudi Arabia. There were several presentations and events in New York recently; the latest artistic exhibit is a photo and video exhibit of contemporary Mecca by another noted Saudi artist, Ahmed Mater, on display in Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit introduces outsiders to the “Forbidden City” of the Muslim world, focusing on the changes the city is undergoing through modernization.
The exhibit takes a surprisingly critical look (surprising, even for outside KSA!) at the contrasts between the massive modernization campaign that the city is undergoing – and the side effects. Some of the commentary on the cons of this enhanced development includes a striking photo of a generic-looking luxury hotel room facing the magnificent view of the Grand Mosque and the courtyard with Ka’abah. If not for the window, the room could just as easily been in Dubai or Vegas. The artist’s commentary is that the recent focus on materialism and consumerism around the sprawling luxury hotels for the wealthiest pilgrims take away from the equalizing focus on spirituality that is supposed to be at the center of the Hajj. Essentially, a spiritual journey turns into just another tourist destination.
Another issue is the seeming lack of interest in cultural preservation. A massive photograph of the Ka’abah, dwarfed by a clock tower and rising hotels shows that historic older buildings, including family homes – and even mountains are being leveled to make room for the hospitality industry. Videos of older building being pulled down show no effort to preserve any historic items or to salvage remnants for relocation to museums. The violation of the majestic mountainous landscape is unnecessary; instead of building sideways, developers can just as easily build up, saving space. Locating the hotels a bit further away from Ka’abah would not burden pilgrims; but would prevent the destruction of the historic buildings, which, based on previous photographs by Mater, gave the city her charm.
The real shame here is that while the wave of tourists, attracted by the modern, luxurious facilities, will initially benefit the economy and encourage others to make the Hajj, the complete destruction of historic remnants will eventually take its toll. The generic hotels will become tiresome; those who are not at the top of the financial ladders will be left feeling empty and disappointed, just as it is the case with visitors to any historic location which has become overpopulated by touristy kitsch at the expense of local charm. The lack of value placed in defending history, however, is likely unintentional and most likely is due to the rush to modernize, lack of experience, and poor planning.
The carelessness of advisers on this matter may be due less to disinterest in the country’s historic heritage as such and more to the inability to see the worth of investment in a different type of long-term business opportunity. Regardless, for the environmentalists and preservationists, while this sad state of affairs may be a turn off and yet another reason to criticize the Saudi government, the reality is that overall the instinct to innovate and modernize is the right one. Many of the older buildings, as pictured throughout the exhibit, have been in poor shape and in many cases, essentially uninhabitable. Likewise, making life easier and more attractive for pilgrims is ultimately is a smart business decision. The key here is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather, to tweak the development towards a natural balance between modernity and preservation of history.
Yet another factor entering the big picture that an outsider can glean from a visit to the exhibit is the fate of the local population as the older buildings are demolished. As per the words of the photographer, the locals who have been living in these old structures, ended up on the street with no other place to go. And this is the moment which can easily turn either into a great opportunity for the Crown Prince to prove himself – or can quickly end up being a very costly mistake. Recent efforts by the monarchy to crack down on corruption have been a positive sign for the population. As the country is struggling with reducing the deficit, Mohammed bin Salman showed that he is dedicated to enforcing the rule of law by arresting 11 princes who demanded free government electricity as a perk, despite the fact that would be in violation of the law.
Showing that even the wealthiest and most powerful people are not above the law is an important first step towards resolving many of the political and social challenges the Kingdom is facing. Nevertheless, fear of swift justice is not sufficient to put to rest skepticism as to the Crown Prince’s ability to govern. Justice also has another side: not leaving the destitute without their homes as a result of the ambitious development program. In a monarchy, where there is only one real ruler (despite the fact that up until this point the decisions were made by consensus of the Royal Family – with very mixed results), that person can earn the reputation of being a protector of his citizens, and thus, a broad popular appeal.
Or, alternatively, he can come to be viewed as incompetent, careless, hypocritical, or himself corrupt – the sort of reputation bitter, envious detractors who did not get the job or Western media, still pining over his familiar predecessor is want to spread. Dissatisfied population is easy prey for the ultraconservative religious clergy, and extremists – exactly the sort of occurrence the modernizing prince should wish to avoid. To avoid that problem, he should make haste with providing everyone who was left homeless with immediate alternative housing for the time being, and follow that with engaging them in the future of their own country. The locals of Mecca should have a stake in the building and prosperity of their own city; they should be viewed as important partners and facilitators of the tantalizing plans to build up the Kingdom from scratch. Involved and invested, such people are the best guarantee of the uniqueness and success of the project. Ignored and outcast, they will be at best a permanent and sad reminder of the grotesque social inequality, and at worst, they will eventually turn towards undermining the government. The choices here are either haste, indifference, and despite the obvious good intentions, eventual tyranny for the sake of keeping power – or engagement, involvement, and a creative solution for social problems, that could potentially make the Crown Prince significantly more powerful against all foes.
The new exhibit provides the viewers with a brief glimpse at the success and vulnerabilities of a country essentially going through growth pangs as it seeks to transform itself into the leader of modernity in the region, best known for its antiquities. But the overall effect is humanizing rather than degrading. There is a clear interest in improving the lives of the people who are coming into the land to pay homage to their spiritual heritage; as with any significant and bold undertaking, mistakes are inevitable. Wise counsel should take advantage of the lessons rising from these first attempts to help the new leadership grow the country’s potential, rather than taking any error or misstep as an excuse to close up again or to ignore important warning signs. The fact that the artists are now free to explore these social phenomena and share their insights with the outside world is overall very encouraging, and shows that KSA’s rulers are confident enough in their paths to take risks and to face potential criticism. The artists and representatives of other creative endeavors are the best possible messengers for KSA’s dedication towards liberalization and movement forward; they offer an opportunity to not only explore the culture that until this time has been suppressed and unknown, but to engage in a thoughtful and provocative reflection on other matters. And that is something that deserves applause – and hope for a lot more in the days to come..