by Courtney Freer
As Saudi Arabia grapples with changes both external and internal, Sean Foley’s ‘systematic’ study demonstrates the role of culture and art in driving societal shifts. Furthermore, he ‘explains that art and cultural production should no longer be considered separate from ‘real politics’ in the Muslim world’.
With Mohammad bin Salman’s rise to power in Saudi Arabia and his implementation of a series of social reforms, including the introduction of a variety of new entertainment events, life in the kingdom has come under increasing scrutiny. Indeed, analysts have written about the crown prince’s efforts at reforms from above and questioned whether and how social liberalisation can occur without a parallel political opening. Sean Foley’s book, by systematically detailing and analysing the Saudi arts and culture scene, critically informs our discussion about Saudi Arabia today and the ways in which it is or is not changing.
Crucially, Foley highlights the prevailing influence of unofficial elite power, particularly in the form of cultural capital in a state with authoritarian political structures (3). In this way, Foley’s study helps to redress an imbalance in Gulf studies literature, which, at least historically, has tended to focus on elite politics, rather than developments at the grassroots. The Saudi art movement, for instance, like other citizen-led movements that are not institutionalised parts of political life, is still important in informing political opinion (3). In fact, Foley argues that ‘artists play a role in Saudi society akin to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of organic intellectuals: Saudi artists are not part of the society’s traditional intellectual elite, but through the language of their culture they articulate feelings and experiences that the masses cannot easily express’ (5).
Foley summarises three key insights derived from his book. First, he highlights the importance of following artists, musicians, and religious leaders to understand politics and society in the Muslim world (7). Second, he debunks the Western notion that popular culture in the Middle East is either secular or religious, positing instead that there is most often a third path between these two. Third, and in my view most importantly, Foley explains that art and cultural production should no longer be considered separate from ‘real politics’ in the Muslim world (7).
Despite having a political role, however, Saudi artists are in no way hoping to imitate Western models. Indeed, these artists ‘do not see their role as one of instigating direct political change, or even marked social transformation that might have political implications. Rather, they nearly always position their expression in spaces consistent with the cultural and religious values of society, and as part of a qualified discourse with the state and society – not in opposition to either hierarchies’ (12). Instead of attempting to overthrow the status quo, Saudi artists operate within it, largely because doing so allows them greater space within which to work (14). Challenging social and political norms from within ruling systems, rather than in opposition to them, is a unique component of social movements in the Gulf and one which I have identified in my study of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The book’s three main substantive chapters chronicle the modern Saudi visual arts movement, the emerging comedy scene, and media companies and filmmakers. In his discussion of the visual arts movement, Foley debunks the myth that Wahhabi states cannot also house artists (26). He also explains that the ambiguity granted to artists is important, as it allows them to claim that their works are officially apolitical while actually testing sensitive cultural, political, and social topics (39); because art has historically been considered separate from ‘real politics,’ its messaging is often ignored. After 9/11 in particular, the surge in Western interest in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally, the increase in charitable giving to social, causes and the arts in Saudi Arabia, and the spread of new internet technologies helped open the space for art (43). By the 2010s, then, the Saudi government had come to realise the importance of the Saudi arts movement – particularly its ability to influence views of Saudis abroad and connect Saudis to global artist networks (58–59).
When it comes to the Saudi comedy scene, which expanded in the 2000s with the spread of Youtube, Foley identifies the importance of the ‘use of humor as a new tool to promote the discussion of critical social challenges’ (74). Notably, many Saudi comedians hail from the southern province of Asir, which is also where the arts movement initially emerged, and many speak English due to having studied abroad on government scholarships, enabling them to advance opinions not often expressed in the capital and allowing them to reach broader audiences through videos like ‘No woman, no drive’ (74). Despite the fact that they come from peripheral areas of the country, ‘many Saudi stand-up comedians have embraced the clear boundaries of Saudi society, seeing these as an aid rather than a hindrance’ (76). Stand-up comedy, Foley elaborates, is interactive in Saudi Arabia and thus resembles more closely a majlis than a show (77). He therefore dubs stand-up comedy as ‘a new way to treat subjects that could not have been handled as openly in other public forums’ (92) and ‘a mechanism to protest social criticism and satire’ (103).
In terms of media companies and filmmakers, Foley emphasises the importance of Youtube in publicising Arabic content aimed at Saudi audiences and enabling it to be produced at the grassroots at little cost (115). The growth of this platform has led to a homegrown film industry, which is, notably, also being promoted by Vision 2030 (119). As a whole, then, ‘artists and their various funders alike looked at culture as a vehicle for promoting a broader discourse on the problems facing society, and eventually for creating forums for political discussion and needed reform’ (152).
In his concluding chapter, Foley is surprisingly optimistic about the role of artists and comedians as ‘organic intellectuals’ who can publicise concerns of the masses in an easily accessible manner (165). He mentions the important role of Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK), which, though run by the crown prince, has a non-profit organisational model with the remit of encouraging creativity among Saudi youth (166). The fact that MiSK was created by the crown prince certainly indicates his desire to and the importance of engaging in ‘exoteric politics’ in a private capacity (166–7). The creation of MiSK and its engagement with Saudi artists also suggest to me a desire to co-opt what independent creative sphere does exist inside the kingdom, all in the name of ‘creating an indigenous entertainment industry’ (169). Foley grants that ‘Saudi artists have strong incentives to find ways to accommodate or reconcile government priorities with their integrity as artists, as cooperation with MiSK can be very beneficial to their careers’ (170). The question becomes, however, what the cost is for artists working with organisations like MiSK that are connected to a government that is becoming increasingly brutal in its domestic policies and ever more isolated abroad.
Foley concludes by taking the position that Saudi Arabia ‘remains a nation in motion – even as it outwardly retains its traditional governmental and social structures’ (177). While he grants that this change is not monumental, he insists that it is tangible. I agree that social changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia and that some of them are coming from the grassroots, yet many are being applied from the top-down. Overall, then, I am more pessimistic about the prospects of such movements (a) being allowed to remain independent and (b) having a tangible effect on political life in a country in which independent activists, clerics, and even comedians are increasingly being arrested or choosing to live abroad.
Courtney Freer is Research Fellow at the Kuwait Programme, LSE Middle East Centre. Her research focuses on domestic politics of the Gulf states, with particular interest in Islamism and tribalism. She tweets at @courtneyfreer