A little more than a century ago, a charismatic British army captain called T.E. Lawrence and fearsome Bedouin warriors swept through the sublime canyons around the desert city of Al-’Ula where I stroll today. They blew up the Hejaz railway, built to transport hajjis from Damascus towards Mecca but repurposed during the first world war by Turks to ferry munitions and troops. Such was the 1916-18 Arab Revolt that threw off Arabia’s Ottoman yoke.
Today a very different kind of Arab uprising is sweeping through Al-’Ula. The canyons resonate not with bombs but with art. Dubai-based Zeinab Alhashemi has constructed boulders made from camel hides for a piece called ‘Camouflage 2.0’. Fitting since the Quran mentions Al-’Ula as the miraculous site where a she-camel was summoned from rock by the prophet Saleh as a sign to pagan locals from Allah. Ramallah-based Khalil Rabah, meanwhile, has planted a square orchard of olive trees in the pitiless desert.
Western artists are also working here. Californian land artist Jim Denevan hired gigglingly mystified local workers to help build 365 concentric mounds of sand for an Ozymandian piece of contemporary art that in time will be levelled by the breezes. Even the rusting old tracks of the Hejaz railway figure: Warsaw-based Monika Sosnowska has artfully twisted and planted them in sand, making a steel bouquet bloom in the desert.
All these and more are part of the Desert XAlUla biennial, an open-air public art festival the second edition of which has just opened in northwestern Saudi Arabia. It’s a region into which the millennial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is pouring billions of dollars for a regeneration project that, Saudi fingers crossed, will make the mighty emirs of the Persian Gulf, despite their Louvre Abu Dhabi and Qatari World Cup, despair.
‘By 2035,’ says Nora Aldabal, arts and creative planning director at the Royal Commission of Al-’Ula, ‘Al-’Ula will be home to 15 landmark destinations for culture, heritage and creativity, each designed in careful dialogue with the region’s unique natural landscape, including museums, galleries, research centres and arts districts.’ That unique landscape includes, by the way, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Hegra, with its elaborate façades cut out of the sandstone outcrops – just like the better known ones of the Nabataean capital Petra in Jordan.
One of those landmark destinations is already drawing visitors. The world’s largest mirrored building, the Maraya cultural complex where the desert can admire its own reflection, played host earlier this month to the American singer Alicia Keys. The venue currently has a superb exhibition, What Lies Within, of mostly female Arab contemporary artists drawn from the collection of Basma AlSulaiman that, were it not rendered toxic by its Saudi provenance, would readily tour to, say, Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe or London’s V&A.
The Crown Prince hopes that art will transform Al-’Ula from cultural dustbowl into jewel in the Arabian crown. Its success in attracting artists and tourism will help diversify the Saudi economy and sanitise a brand known for oil and oppression.
Or will it? Three years ago, the US artist Ed Ruscha resigned from the board of Desert Xin protest at it expanding its remit from Coachella to Al-’Ula and collaborating with the Saudis. ‘It’s like inviting Hitler to a tea party in 1943,’ he said. ‘I see Saudi Arabia as being in desperate need of cultural legitimacy, and this is a way to move the spotlight away from their other problems.’ The murder in 2018 of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA claims was commissioned by MBS, the torture of scores of the kingdom’s economic and political elite at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in 2017, decades of human-rights abuses of Houthi rebels in Yemen: all demonstrated for Ruscha that the millennial Crown Prince – in spite of allowing women to drive from 2018 and despite being embraced in the same year, during a US tour, by Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and Donald Trump – should be treated as a pariah.
Ruscha wasn’t the only one to feel queasy about what he considered Saudi art washing. Richard Branson was one of several westerners to resign from the Royal Commission’s advisory board after Khashoggi’s murder. A $400 million investment by the Saudis in the International Frieze Art Fair, designed to further stimulate the Saudi arts sector, was returned.
Such compunctions make British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s decision to sign a rather nebulous art agreement with the Saudi government at the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale earlier this month, to put it mildly, morally interesting. ‘This new agreement will strengthen our ties on film, museums and heritage,’ she said.
Behind Dorries, as she signed the document, was a striking installation called ‘Birth of a Place’ by a University of Coventry-trained Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi, in which towering desert rock formations seem to be mutating into a high-rise cityscape –an eloquent comment on her sense that her home city of Al-Bahah in particular and her homeland in general is being sucked into the jet stream of globalisation.
Whether Dorries will become Nadine of Arabia, heroic supporter of Arabic cultural renaissance and cross-cultural understanding, remains to be seen. Maybe, rather, history will damn her as a useful idiot, a human fig leaf obscuring with culture how Britain profits from Saudi outrages by supplying the Typhoon and Tornado jets that enable the kingdom to conduct a ruthless campaign against the Houthis that is denounced by Human Rights Watch.
But who is all this new art in Saudi for? When I visited this biennial, there were only a handful of visitors, scarcely any of them local, massively outnumbered by genial guides. An Islamic Biennial in the same halls later this year, my guide tells me, promises to be a much more family-friendly event. Perhaps contemporary art in today’s Saudi Arabia is a phenomenon that means little to the locals, but enables the kingdom to become yet another destination for deracinated jet-setting aesthetes leaping from business class to air-conditioned gallery to abase themselves before the fatuous secular icons of contemporary art. Just like everywhere else. Which would be a shame.
Back in the desert, Desert X co-curator Reem Fadda is more hopeful. For her, MBS’s bankrolling of the arts infrastructure in Al-’Ula, as well as of new artistic quarters in Riyadh and Jeddah, are welcome in the face of anti-Arab cancel culture. ‘Unfortunately,’ Fadda says, ‘when your artists are dismissed it’s only a symptom of the fact that we are completely disregarded as civilisations.’ As Fadda speaks, she becomes increasingly angry at the marginalisation of Arab artists in general and Saudi ones in particular. ‘For us to make sure our artists are heard is to say we deserve it. The opportunity we have in Saudi Arabia? It’s about time.’
She has a point. In a land where two thirds of Saudis are under 35 and nearly half of those unmarried women, and where the arts is one of the few spaces where young Arab women can express themselves freely, deploying oil revenues to fund arts and culture might shake the kingdom out of its conservative slumbers. One of the most striking artworks I see during my time in Saudi Arabia is at the Maraya. A series of photographs from two decades ago depicts the Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan driving, scuba diving, playing tennis, travelling independently – all activities forbidden or scarcely possible for women at the time. Art, AlDowayan seems to be saying, is where change is imagined before being realised.
Pierre Sigg, a Swiss economist turned Saudi-based real estate and hotel developer, and friend of Saudi’s first culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, tells me that when he first arrived in Saudi four decades ago calligraphy was the only significant form of artistic expression.
His art foundation offers residencies that will, Sigg hopes, help reduce the mutual incomprehension that Arab and non-Arab artists have for one another. ‘I want to continue to find ways to open up a dialogue between artists working in connected fields around the world,’ Sigg says.
Whether such initiatives, and there are several of them in Al-’Ula, transform Saudi contemporary art and put it on the world map is uncertain. I wander into the desert for one last time to admire Khalil Rabah’s olive trees. From a distance they look like a mirage; from inside, this little wood feels like a hopeful sign of how something worthwhile – Saudi artistic expression, for instance – might improbably flourish in harsh conditions.
Rabah hands me an olive branch torn from one his trees. I press the leaves into my notebook. Doubtless his gesture expresses a yearning for something different from communication by bombs, torture, murder, terrorism, arms deals and mutual contempt.
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Desert X is at Al-’Ula until 31 March. (desertx.org/dx/desert-x-alula). What Lies Within is at the Maraya, Al-’Ula, until 20 March (experiencealula.com/en/discover-alula).
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