“Write the bad things that are done to you in sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble,” says an old Arab proverb. With only three months of it left, there is no doubt that 2020 will forever be marked as a year that changed the course of history and humanity itself, forcing both governments and individuals to review their role and status. In Saudi Arabia, the closing of borders meant citizens and foreign residents were obliged to look closer to home for entertainment and respite from the pandemic – and the search took them on a journey of discovery.
For years, Saudi Arabia was all but closed to the outside world. Much of the country was relatively closed off to many of its own people. Unlike the region’s more established tourist hubs, such as the United Arab Emirates or Oman, Saudi Arabia has always been reticent about marketing itself. But the pandemic has changed all that, producing a massive surge in domestic tourism and a great flowering of the arts and of cultural life.
A national campaign, “Saudi Summer,” encouraged people in the country to explore beach resorts, the mountains and archaeological sites that are, if not quite on their own doorstep, at least within easy reach. Cruising was previously almost unheard of as a vacation option, but Red Sea cruises have proved to be a big hit, with passengers exploring the unspoilt coast and being entertained by top singing stars – all while remaining safely close to home.
The drive to promote homegrown culture by organizations such as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture has brought the reclusive “flower men” from the southern provinces of Jizan and Asir to the cities during festivals such as National Day, to demonstrate the ancient art of creating intricate floral headpieces. The tradition of tribesmen wearing the colorful crowns – to honor nature, among other things – goes back centuries. Yet it remains little known even to many Saudis.
A more relaxed attitude to women’s dress, with some women venturing out in public minus their abaya, is just another part of the drive to connect the different communities in the country.
Culture is a key component of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan. “We consider culture and entertainment to be indispensable to our quality of life,” the Vision 2030 website states. It goes on to say that the entertainment options available currently “do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy,” and then outlines an ambitious program to remedy the shortfall, pledging to allocate land for libraries, museums, arts venues and to support writers, authors and film directors and other creatives.
This month, Saudi Arabia was elected to Unesco’s Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage for the first time. Earlier this year, the Saudi musician, Jihad Al-Khalidi, was appointed CEO of the newly formed Saudi Music Authority.
The Saudi arts scene was given a huge boost in July by a royal decree requiring all government offices and agencies to display works by Saudi artists. There was no shortage of choice, from edgy street art to the classical and abstract, created by Saudis of all ages. One benefit of the months of curfew during the pandemic has been the exposure Saudi artists have enjoyed via a plethora of art competitions and virtual exhibitions promoted on social media.
Increased demand from “staycationers” has compelled institutions to offer an expanded program, and the contributions of cultural icons going back to the 1960s finally is being properly recognized and documented. The pandemic has made the kingdom look inward for inspiration, enabling it to take more creative risks.
But will this continue once borders are open again? Going abroad still holds great appeal and this month Saudi Arabia announced the resumption of some international flights. Borders will fully reopen on January 1. Still, with all the testing, quarantine and extra paperwork now required, travel is not as easy as it used to be. Nor is it as affordable.
The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 pandemic has left no industry untouched. Priorities have been reviewed. Accountability and dependability have become more important than ever. The pandemic also has revealed more of those truly essential to society: the medical practitioner, the logistics teams running deliveries, the journalist imparting accurate information to the public, the IT experts.
To that list we should add entertainers and artists – and not only because they have the ability to lift our spirits or make us laugh, but because they have another way of thinking, and creative thinkers are needed as never before. In uncertain times, there is no such thing as a bad idea.
Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.