Saudi Arabia's arts and entertainment investments also serve political needs Saudi Arabia is making a major push to become an arts and entertainment destination, but is the effort succeeding in overcoming the kingdom's conservative image?

Saudi Arabia's art scene is exploding, but who benefits?

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Saudi Arabia is considered to be ruled by one of the most conservative and socially repressive governments in the world. Genders didn't mix. There were no cinemas. But now it's morphing into a regional hub for art and entertainment. Saudi Arabia hosted the Formula 1 Grand Prix...


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: ...As he comes home to win the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

FADEL: ...A massive rave in the desert.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: An Andy Warhol exhibition is happening right now in an oasis city there. And it hosts an international film festival that draws celebrities like Naomi Campbell.


NAOMI CAMPBELL: The festival is the perfect example of how creativity can bring people together and how we can learn from each other and encourage positive change.

FADEL: But are these events a sign of transformative change in the kingdom or a tactic by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to whitewash his government's human rights record, while placating the country's young population? Jeed Basyouni says this opening comes at a cost. She investigates the use of the death penalty across the Middle East and North Africa for the human rights group Reprieve.

JEED BASYOUNI: Why we take particular issue with the use of art and sports and entertainment in this way is because it's very strategic on the behalf of Mohammed bin Salman. It is being used to - you know, it's kind of a gamble. If I entertain my population, they won't mind that it's coming with this huge price on their safety, on their freedom, on their fundamental human rights. That's the gamble he's taking. And it's very deliberate. It's not out of the goodness of his heart that he's opening up Saudi society. There's a lot of money there for himself and the public - you know, the sovereign wealth fund.

Saudi Arabia has a very young population who have been mostly very bored for the last 30 years because of how restricted society has been. If you distract them with these things, they won't notice that from the other hand, he's making society more repressive than it's ever been. Mohammed bin Salman will decide what Saudi Arabia will look like, and anyone that has any view will - you know, will be punished.

FADEL: So give me an example of some of the people facing the death penalty over something that seems - that is nonlethal crime or a freedom of expression issue.

BASYOUNI: So we have the case of a scholar, Hassan al-Maliki. His viewpoint is very much pushing for a more inclusive society where people from different faiths and sects can get along for a less rigid interpretation of the type of Islam that's been practiced in Saudi Arabia traditionally. And he has been in prison since 2017. He hasn't been sentenced. But the charges against him include things like owning books that have not been permitted. So there's no lethal charge against him, and the public prosecutor is asking for the death sentence against him.

We've just released a report with our fantastic Saudi partner. We were trying to examine if there was a change under the watch of Mohammed bin Salman from 2015 onwards, where he becomes the de facto ruler. And what we've seen is executions have almost doubled annually under his watch. Almost 43% of these executions have been for nonlethal offenses, for cases that are involving freedom of expression.

FADEL: But despite these very real numbers, creatives from around the region are now flocking to Saudi Arabia as a place to showcase their work. Lebanese filmmaker Dania Bdeir recently premiered her film "Warsha," which explores gender identity.

DANIA BDEIR: There is a willingness to at least allow for some stories to be told, and maybe when it comes to completely speaking out about the politics, that stuff - not quite yet. I don't know if that'll ever happen. But at least starting off with a human self-expression and each one kind of telling their own story, that's the beginning.

FADEL: There were no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia until a few years ago, when a 35-year ban was lifted, and now the kingdom is hosting film festivals. I asked Dubai-based cultural strategist and art consultant Myrna Ayad what these changes mean.

MYRNA AYAD: I do fundamentally believe that you can change somebody's mind, you can influence their opinion, you can alter their thought, if you do it through art and culture. I think that this is how we develop tolerance, we develop understanding.

FADEL: People see contradictions in this opening, artistically, at a time where also, politically, things seem to be so closed. How does that work for an artist who is making things but within the limitations of the current structure?

AYAD: I salute Saudi artists. Despite however many restrictions or limitations or challenges, they persevered. They've been collected widely by institutions such as the Tate, the Pompidou, the British Museum. There is one Saudi artist that I'm going to tell you about. His name is Nasser Al-Salem. He uses the Quran as his inspiration. And there is an amazing work that he has created. It is a verse from the Quran that says, he who follows Allah shall find for him a way out. I'm roughly translating because I know it in Arabic. But he's rendered it in Arabic calligraphy as a maze.

FADEL: Oh, I see.


FADEL: I'm looking at it right now.

AYAD: Yeah. You can't touch it. It is the word of God. So you see? They are extremely smart, and they find ways.

FADEL: What do you say to people who say, well, this is just a way for the kingdom to paper over its human rights record?

AYAD: I'm sick of hearing that.

FADEL: Yeah.

AYAD: Honestly. Because...


AYAD: ...I have friends here in the UAE, in Saudi, in other parts of the Middle East, and we are a determined few. And we work very hard, and we are committed to what we are doing. We believe in our countries and our region and our heritage, and we are proud of it. To hold the politics of a country, you know, and its laws in my face every time an artist, you know, wants to stage an exhibition or publish a book and just say, oh, but it's Saudi, oh, but it's whitewashing, oh, but it's this - that's not fair. You have to see us in another light. We cannot be seen in only that lens.

FADEL: Yeah. No, I see what you mean. But it also doesn't exist in a vacuum away from it, either.

AYAD: No, it does not exist in a vacuum. But listen; I am Lebanese originally.

FADEL: Yeah. Me, too.

AYAD: If you're going to look at me (laughter) based on my country's government and my country's political...

FADEL: Oh, no.

AYAD: (Laughter) You know, I mean, what's left? Come on.

FADEL: (Laughter).

AYAD: You have to see me from another light. You know, you have to see me for who I am.

FADEL: That was Myrna Ayad, a cultural strategist and arts consultant based in Dubai. You also heard from Jeed Basyouni, a human rights activist, and Dania Bdeir, a Lebanese filmmaker.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

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