How Saudi Arabia is using art to build a tourism industry and help remake its image
'It was pretty controversial for a lot of these artists and Desert X ... to get involved,' says reporter
As Saudi Arabia works to change its image in the eyes of the Western world, it's looking to California for inspiration.
The country's regime has partnered with Desert X, an American art company best known for its work in the golden state's Coachella Valley where thousands gather each year for its namesake music and arts festival.
The result of the partnership is Desert X AlUla, is an impressive visual arts exhibition deep in the Saudi desert.
Surrounded by ancient monuments and experiences, the Saudi governments hopes that the festival will boost tourism in the region.
But the regime, and the festival's organizers, have come under fire for what some see as a whitewashing of the country's human rights abuses.
New York Times reporter Vivian Yee visited the Desert X AlUla festival and told Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what's on offer.
Here is part of that conversation.
Can you describe this place in western Saudi Arabia — Al Ula — where Desert X AlUla is happening?
Al Ula is a pretty small town in the vast middle of Saudi Arabia. It's not too far from Medina, which is the second holiest city in all of Islam. It's a pretty dusty, small, unremarkable looking town.
It's really everything around it — it's surrounded by these amazing really stunning sandstone rock formations that were formed over millennia. And it's also very close to the site of an ancient Nabataean city.
So if you know anything about Petra, those tombs that are carved into the rock in Petra in Jordan — there's a very similar thing going on.
And it is an exquisite site, and the art is pretty eye popping as well. But this is all part of this big push by the Kingdom's rulers to transform Saudi Arabia in the next 20 years.
How do the planners hope that this place, Al Ula, will change as a result of this art project?
Yes, so Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has this Vision 2030 where he's hoping to open up society [and] introduce reforms like letting women drive.
And a big part of this push is creating a tourism industry, basically from scratch. Before this, you basically only had Muslim tourists coming to Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimages at Mecca and Medina, and suddenly, last year, they started throwing the doors open to non-Muslim tourists who can apply online for e-visas....
Al Ula is one of the jewels in their tourism crown, so to speak.
I want to talk about the politics in a second but first let's look at the art and the partnership here, because Desert X has put on art installations before — notably in the Coachella Valley. But how do the art installations you see in Al Ula compare to the art at Coachella?
The art in Saudi Arabia now and the art that is displayed in the Coachella Valley is linked in that, in their words, [it's] art that's specific to the desert in both locations.
And so they're saying we're interested to see how artists who are of Middle Eastern background, or of a Saudi background, collaborate with artists who are of a Western background.
And the installations, I mean the photos, are absolutely beautiful. This is striking work and, as you said, site-specific in this other-worldly site. But have there been any signs that the art itself was too contentious for Saudi sensibilities?
Yeah. There's a sculpture by Lita Albuquerque who is an American-based artist who put up a figure of a woman — a blue woman — sitting on a large rock and she's sort of looking down into the valley.
And the artist and Desert X think it's really significant because they say it's the first sculpture of a woman to appear publicly in modern Saudi Arabia.
They did say that they modified the sculpture a bit because originally she was wearing more of a tight-fitting outfit, the woman in the sculpture. And after consultation with Saudi officials, Lita Albuquerque said that she decided to put more of an abaya-like garment on the statue.
She says this is just her responding to local sensibilities and not wanting to offend anyone.... I think other people might argue that that is a form of government interference in the creativity here.
And then there is the broader human rights issues around the Saudi royal family: the jailing of women, the jailing of activists, the brutal murder of Khashoggi.
Did you hear from any of the people at Desert X AlUla about their decision to be involved, or just to be there, despite the controversy around the royal family?
Yeah, definitely. And I should say it's Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the ruler — he is the driving force behind all of these abuses and decisions that you just mentioned, as well as behind trying to turn Al Ula into a tourism destination.
And so I think it was pretty controversial for a lot of these artists, and Desert X as an organization, to get involved. They faced a huge amount of criticism in Los Angeles where most of these people are based.
They said it was complicated but once they decided to go they were really glad that they did because they felt like it's important to engage with Saudi artists, [and] separate government actions from people in the population who may want to interact with their art.
Did any artist say: yes, I do believe this is a way to make Saudi a more open place, to participate in cultural activities here and maybe bring some of these voices forward?
No one wanted to be so bold as to say that they were going to combat human rights abuses by Saudi government officials.
It was much more about: well, if we can forge individual connections with Saudis [and] generally open people's minds in both countries.
I talked to one artist who is Egyptian-American. She talked about growing up in Egypt and not really having an idea of the broader world until she started meeting tourists.
She said that was sort of a turning point for her artistically. Her mind was was opened to other possibilities.
She was saying maybe that's something that I can foster for some women in Saudi Arabia.
So looking ahead, Vivian, 15 years into the future: do you imagine that Desert X AlUla will ever be as successful and popular and unfettered as Coachella or Burning Man or other desert festivals that happen in the Western world?
It's hard to imagine Burning Man in the Saudi desert. But, you know, whether you can get a cool Instagram picture in the Saudi desert? For sure, it's right there.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, download our podcast or click Listen above.