In recent years, Saudi Arabia has seen massive changes, moving from an austere stronghold retaining an air of religious conservatism to an open social order that has relaxed sweeping restrictions in ways that were once considered un-Islamic. .
Among a host of social changes unveiled in Saudi Arabia and championed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, there have been efforts to remake the Arab entertainment scene as a catalyst for Saudi supremacy in the field.
The offer aims to make the oil-rich kingdom the center of the entertainment industry in the Arab world. From soap operas and concerts by top Arab singers, to music festivals and, more recently, dance parties, Saudis are trying to leave their mark on the industry.
But a close look at the underside of Saudi Arabia’s cultural openness shows that the country is setting new goals for creating Arab mindsets by influencing the Arab arts and culture industry.
Whether Saudi popular culture is really on the rise in this era of confusion and uncertainty has become a matter of debate as the country scrambles fiercely for markets with former centers of art and culture. Arabs.
With mass entertainment events and projects underway, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) plans to invest some $64 billion in its entertainment sector to make the country a top destination for entertainment. ‘industry.
The GEA, led by Turki Al-Sheikh, a close adviser to Bin Salman, was created in line with Saudi Vision 2030, the crown prince’s long-term goal of establishing a “vibrant society and a thriving economy”.
The organization has been tasked with “regulating and developing the entertainment industry by delivering world-class inclusive entertainment offerings” that will inspire the industry to help achieve the Vision.
Under Al-Sheikh, he undertook massive projects in the field of art and entertainment crowned by a series of festivities in the country which included many events and concerts attracting Arab divas and icons and sometimes also talents prominent internationals such as American actor John Travolta.
The Saudi Ministry of Commerce announced last week that the country had recorded its highest number of commercial registrations in the entertainment and arts industry with a 906% increase in 2021 compared to 2015.
In December, Saudi Arabia opened its first full-fledged film festival in Jeddah with more than 130 films from some 67 countries participating. As well as local celebrities, the Red Sea International Film Festival boasted a slice of glamour, with guests including international show business personalities Catherine Deneuve, Naomi Campbell and Clive Owen.
The country’s streaming networks are also working on movies and TV projects featuring A-list actors such as Gerard Butler while partnering with Netflix to produce feature films.
Investment in the entertainment sector is part of Bin Salman’s social reforms in the kingdom, which include cracking down on moral conservatism and in particular restrictions on women.
At mass entertainment events, men and women can now mingle in a way that was once unthinkable in the ‘Land of the Two Holy Mosques’, Islam’s holiest sites, with thousands in attendance dancing to some of the most advanced DJs in the world. world.
The change is not aimed at a national audience. With plans to diversify its income, Saudi Arabia is pushing its “social revolution” to attract foreign tourism to revive its economy.
The shift is also about a deep pursuit of prestige and national assertiveness against regional rivals whose cultural “soft power” was on display when Saudi Arabia still relied on religious fundamentalism for moral authority in the region.
As the Arab powers jostle for regional supremacy, another competition is also unfolding. Saudi Arabia competes with Egypt and the other cultural centers that have long dominated the Arab world in literature, music, film and modern art.
Cairo has always been the heart of the Arab entertainment industry and for decades Egypt was considered the Hollywood of the Middle East, whose films and TV series were the country’s most glamorous export. .
The Egyptian cinematographic tradition dates back to November 5, 1896 when the first short films of the French Lumière Brothers were screened in Alexandria less than a year after their Parisian premiere.
The opening of a series of small cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria followed, and soon the country saw its first cinema studio in the true sense of the word, not only in Egypt but also in the entire Arab world.
By 1927, Egypt had made its first feature film, “Kiss in the Desert”, followed by several silent films before the first sound film, “Song of the Heart”, arrived four years later.
For decades, Egyptian cinema has reflected the culture of the nation and unloaded hundreds of films in Arab countries. Audiences from the Middle East to Iran and Turkey adored Egyptian singers and movie stars.
After the rise of the Pan-Arab regime of former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egyptian cinema experienced its golden age when Cairo became the largest exporter of films in the region and an important source of popular culture in the world. Arab.
The 1950s and 1960s were seen as a period of cultural renaissance for Egypt, when its cultural offerings rang with the spirit of Nasser’s nationalism and pan-Arabism and the region slowly progressed in its postcolonial journey towards modernity. .
Despite subsequent cultural and societal drift, political and economic difficulties, and competition from new emerging regional entertainment hubs, Egypt’s film and television industry has remained the producer of some of Egypt’s most glamorous exports.
However, perhaps inevitably, the Egyptian entertainment industry has found itself embroiled in fierce competition for soft power with other regional heavyweights vying for dominance as changing political, economic, technological and social marked the era.
In a broader regional sense, the Saudi entertainment boom has raised questions about the extent to which the country could play a vital role in promoting and influencing art and entertainment and advancing the spirit Arab.
So far, Saudi authorities have made progress in using the entertainment revolution to reinvent the ultra-conservative country, transforming it into an open society and weeding out extremist beliefs.
Saudi plans to hold big practice events and invite famous artists from around the world to connect with local audiences also appear to be working and gaining regional and international fame.
But in the tough regional competition to build and exploit cultural prestige, whether the country can become a regional entertainment hub by spending billions of dollars remains open to serious questions.
In the world of art and culture, there are countless other factors involved besides money, including the national infrastructure that forms the backbone of culture in a given country.
Although the soft power struggle between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has never been an official issue, it has recently become a source of debate on social media platforms, with arguments and sentiments hitting the chords. In each country.
The half-hearted and boastful arguments involving prominent Egyptian actors, their union and Al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi GEA, have largely focused on debunking, recasting or quashing competing narratives about cultural winners.
Yet they have also unwittingly opened the door to a more serious intra-Arab debate on regional cultural history and the inexorable game of attracting attention and promoting competition in the rewriting of culture in the baseline scenario for the future.
*A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.