The Saudi art charade and Mohammad bin Salman

The Saudi art charade and Mohammad bin Salman

By Mark LeVine

• Regime sponsorship of the arts could hurt artistic freedom of expression.

Last month’s purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Salvator Mundi, for $450m by an associate of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) rocked the art world. It also called into question an already suspect anti-corruption drive launched by bin Salman in the weeks before the purchase. MBS’ earlier purchases of a $500 million yacht and a $300 million French chateau haven’t helped his cause either.

Whatever bin Salman’s aesthetic proclivities, it’s not surprising that Saudi leaders are attempting to use art to signal a major change in the country’s culture and, less so, politics. In the past few months, Saudi authorities have permitted concerts and reopened cinemas, pledged to allow women to attend sporting events and even drive.


All this, along with the recent announcement of the creation of a new art institute under the sponsorship of MBS’ foundation, is part of a clear regime strategy to rebrand itself not just as a major patron of the arts, but as a society in the process of opening itself up to the world after a century of religiously motivated obscurantism.

Abu Dhabi, home to the newly opened franchise of the Louvre (where the Salvator Mundi will be housed), as well as Saudi Arabia’s Gulf adversary, Qatar, have long used museums and Western educational institutions as markers of cultural and religious modernity and moderation. Along with gaudy Dubai, the Gulf emirates have also used their ultra-modern skylines to demonstrate their mastery of modern engineering and architectural aesthetics.

Jordan doesn’t have the wealth for such displays, but it’s recently become home to one of the Middle East’s most vibrant art scenes.

Across the Arab world, the Moroccan monarchy has promoted for decades music festivals which have become huge tourist attractions. Rabat has used music as the centrepiece of its self-promotion as a leading exponent of “moderate Islam” and of an ostensibly moderate and modern political system.


So important is this process that when a group of young metalheads were convicted of Satan worship in 2003, the government overturned the convictions. Morocco’s heavy metal and hip-hop scenes have flourished since.

A decade later, however, when a young rapper named L’Haqed (the spiteful one) began releasing songs highly critical of the government as part of the Kingdom’s Arab Spring moment, he was arrested, beaten and sentenced to three years imprisonment before being forced into exile. And the treatment L’Haqed received is the norm for anyone who challenges the Moroccan king, and most every other regional autocrat for that matter.

Political art created by and for ordinary people (often with extraordinary skills) has long been repressed by those in power, precisely because it offers an alternative and usually critical view of societies’ political and cultural realities. Its importance has never been greater than today, as demonstrated by the centrality of musicians, singers, poets, graffiti and other artists like L’Haqed to the early successes of the Arab uprisings…

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