A visitor arriving in Saudi Arabia, especially in its capital Riyadh or the city of Jeddah, would be surprised by the many societal changes: the relaxed mood of the citizens, brave graffiti statements on walls, women driving cars as well as the mingling of genders at social gatherings. A proliferation of entertainment centers, cinemas and mega shopping malls can be seen. The voice of the youth can be heard, not only at the festivals and concerts, but also in the streets. Those interested in the visual arts would also become aware of the renewed spirits in the sector throughout the Kingdom as many new galleries and private museums are establishing themselves. The 21,39 annual art exhibition is thriving, artist studios and cultural events grow in popularity. MiSK Art Institute – the artist-centered organization – opened in 2017 and is led by one of the most prominent Saudi artists, Ahmed Mater. Alongside this contemporary cultural development, there is much focus on Saudi heritage and the preservation of traditional forms of art. Ancient cities, such as Mada'in Saleh and their culture are explored and exposed to the citizens and the world.
Social, political, and cultural transformations cannot go unnoticed. But one should wonder what brings about these changes. After all, Saudi Arabia is regarded as one of the most conservative countries in the world. In recent debates concerning Saudi politics, scholars have posed questions about the impetus of the current change such as: Why a kingdom known for many decades as ultra-conservative, is now witnessing such a drastic social change? Why is it happening now? Is the so-called transformation a political ploy to convince the public about the new Saudi leadership? What if the reform is a plan to alienate factions within the inner structures of power as some social observers keenly opine? Might one also argue that the agitation of non-state actors and underground movements have coerced the state to finally conform to the principles of liberalism? Finally, is the focus on heritage and cultural preservation a part of the state’s pursuit towards hegemony?
The lecture will focus on these areas of interests in an attempt to offer insight and understanding of the current affairs of Saudi Arabia.