Pluses and problems with culture in the MENA region

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra– that’s its rather beautiful Snøhetta-designed Dhahram HQ in the picture) has been burnishing its credentials as a regional thinktank for the cultural and creative ecosystem with the release of a series of research-based reports intended “to better understand the evolution of the cultural and creative industry in the Saudi, regional and global context”.

Ithra hopes the research will be “a resource for policymakers as well as the public, challenging perceptions and inspiring dialogue on the state of an industry” according to Fatmah Alrashid, Head of Strategy and Partnerships for Ithra.

‘Culture in the 21st Century’ seems the most relevant of the reports from our viewpoint. Despite the lack of geographic specificity in the title, it looks at cultural offerings and consumption in the MENA region via responses from more than 5,000 people in those 10 cities (Dubai and Sharjah plus Dammam, Jeddah, and Riyadh from KSA along with Beirut, Cairo, Kuwait City, Manama, and Muscat) plus interviews with more than 20 regional experts from different fields including policymakers, academics, artists and curators.

The aim was to provoke conversation on how best to boost cultural engagement in MENA, with the ultimate objective of contributing to the promotion of culture and cultural exchange. That’s impressively ambitious, given the marked contrasts in the region

The report finds that cultural participation is on the rise everywhere, “driven by an enhanced cultural awareness and a motivation to learn”. Fully 90 percent of respondents said that cultural participation was important to them; 75 percent valued it above comparable entertainment options (like watching TV or playing sport).

But it does acknowledge that the cultural landscape is evolving differently across MENA. The Gulf states are adopting a top-down approach by investing public funds in culture and the creative industries – new institutions, frameworks, infrastructure and spaces. By contrast, the Levant and North African Arab countries are taking a bottom-up approach, driven by grassroots organisations, private initiatives, and social diversity.

In fact the bigger contrast is probably in the social and economic environments; the Gulf states have the money, they have well-established traditions of their rulers effectively gifting the people those cultural goodies, and they have the motivation to establish themselves geopolitically via soft power.

In most cases the Mediterranean countries have fewer resources, less money, a troubled political past, and much greater social and economic diversity – much of which happens to be associated historically with the development of vibrant cultural scenes and influential movements in art (art sometimes seems to thrive in poverty and intellectual ferment).

To that end it might have been instructive to include the views of inhabitants some of the trickier cities of the Mediterranean littoral – Tunis and Algiers, say, and maybe some Moroccan locations.

The report acknowledges that “challenges hindering cultural engagement” include “limited public expenditure and support” and “economic and political instability”. Accessibility in general is seem as a key barrier to cultural engagement for some countries (unspecified), with culture often having a limited presence in mainstream education or children-specific content.

We might have hoped for more on the value of building creative economies, or indeed the value of cultural participation both as consumer and participant, and how MENA states might develop those as a counterweight to the bad news that comes out of so many of them..

Instead the study does recommend several uncontentious measures to accelerate cultural participation, including exchange of views and experiences between cultural institutions in the region; supporting the cultural participation of low-income groups and generally improving inclusiveness; and promoting life-long “cultural learning”, particularly through the education curricula.

Full disclosure: we haven’t seen the full report – there is only a summary on the Ithra website. We’re trying to get hold of a copy and if successful may be able to extract some more nuggets to add to this piece.


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