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Art and culture sectors crucial for economic growth, say business leaders at FII

RIYADH: While globalization and technology continue to reshape the world’s social and economic frontiers, art and culture are also becoming key forces for economic growth and social progress.

Saudi Arabia is not immune from this, and the creative industries are a crucial part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy for economic diversification and social transformation. 

The culture sector is expected to generate $20 billion in revenues and create hundreds of thousands of jobs under the plan, with the aim of increasing the contribution of the sector to Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product to 3 percent.

Culture, whether in the form of art, fashion, food, entertainment and technology, is part of the country’s plans for a future beyond oil.

While governments around the world, particularly in the UK and the US, have been cutting state expenditure for the arts, Saudi Arabia has been increasing its investment to capitalize on the Kingdom’s great potential to become both a regional and global player in the cultural realm.

Speaking during a panel discussion at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh, Royal Commission for AlUla CEO Amr Al-Madani said Vision 2030 had made it clear the sector is an “indispensable driver for our quality of life.” 

He added: “We do believe that as the world moves on from institutional walls that used to hold the custody of culture – museums, galleries and research institutions – we all must believe that culture is not within these spaces anymore, but with the space in between, It is about people’s way of expression. 

“In Saudi Arabia we are capturing this by allowing culture to thrive in between institutions, in fashion, intangible histories, stories, leveraging the assets, but focusing on consumer economy and economic drivers.”

AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s ancient desert landscape, is one of the centers for the Kingdom’s cultural drive. 

It has a legacy, said Al-Madani, of more than 200,000 years of human presence and 8,000 years of civilizations that one can see through ruins and numerous excavations. 

There, he said, the RCU has found value in nature and in the intangible history and stories of the inhabitants. 

“We have called this ‘a cultural landscape’,” he said, adding: “We are creating a living museum, and we want people to experience it fully. We want every local in AlUla to become a storyteller and every visitor to become a co-producer of AlUla’s future legacy.”

During FII, RCU made four announcements over different sectors. These included agreements with two French companies to create a 22.5 km immersive tramway experience in AlUla, and a partnership with the Thales Group to use digital technology to protect AlUla’s collection of ancient artifacts and landmarks, 

There was also connectivity agreement with telecom giant stc to drive the area’s digital transformation and improve efficiency of technologies, and AlUla Film announced its partnership with American Company Stampede Ventures to develop and produce 10 feature films in the region over the next three years.

Also sitting under the Ministry of Culture is the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, responsible for arts exhibitions in the area.

“Through the inaugural editions of our Biennales in Diriyah and Jeddah, DBF not only enhances the local cultural landscape but also attracts international attention,” Aya Al-Bakree, CEO of the foundation, told Arab News, adding: “These events are more than just showcases; they are catalysts for growth.”

The success of the events is evident in the attendance numbers, with the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in 2021-2022 drawing over 100,000 visitors, while the Islamic Arts Biennale in 2023 welcoming more than 600,000.

“The creative economy stimulates various economic sectors by bringing together talent across generations and disciplines, from artists to scientists, challenging the status quo,” Al-Bakree added. 

Aya Al-Bakree, CEO of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Supplied.

The CEO was keen to highlight the influence of those in the artistic sector across many aspects of society.

“Artists are risk-takers, knowledge producers and innovators at heart, and their work can inspire generations to shape the world according to their ambitions,” Al-Bakree said, adding: “A strong cultural sector can spark innovation and serve as a catalyst for growth, learning, social cohesion, and mutual understanding between peoples, locally and internationally.”

She stressed that a creative economy, such as the one being established in the Kingdom, is “a resilient one, fueling economic diversification and growth across industries.”

Fashion, another creative sector, is also deemed a key investment area to spur economic growth in the Kingdom. 

The Fashion Commission, which sits under the Saudi Ministry of Culture, is investing heavily in the sector, and according to a recently published report the sector contributed 1.4 percent to the nation’s GDP in 2021, amounting to $12.5 billion.

Burak Cakmak, CEO of the commission, said during the panel: “Culture is clearly the representation of values of the past present and in some ways the indication of what we want for the future as a community. 

“In the case of the Saudi community, clearly there’s a big emphasis on the heritage and the way people have been dressed in different parts of the country. 

“Saudis want to represent their culture and their identity and showcase how it is evolving and what a better way to do this than through fashion.”

Fashion, emphasized Cakmak, will be a “core driver” for the Kingdom’s economic growth, but also serves as a representation of the values of the Saudi youth.

Of the Kingdom’s 32.2 million people, 63 percent are under the age of 30, according to the Saudi general authority for statistics, with the median age of the population standing at 29 – figures that emphasize the youth-oriented nature of the economic change.

Another sector that could add to the Kingdom’s transformation is art collectors.

The global market totaled $67.8 billion in 2022, growing 3 percent year-over-year and reaching its second-highest level to date, according to a report published by Art Basel in partnership with UBS.

Speaking during the panel at the FII event, Charles Stewart, CEO of auction house Sotheby’s, said Saudi Arabia is well placed to redefine its art market.

“Culture for us is about self-expression and dialogue,” he said, adding: “It is the in-between space between a creator and an audience. It is an experience that brings audiences together.”

The CEO continued: “More importantly, it’s an amazing convener of audiences and people.

“I think the opportunity that the Kingdom has with its very ambitious plans to define what that looks like over the next 10 to 100 years is quite extraordinary.”

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