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The picture is changing
Saudi artists and comedians are enjoying a thin breath of freedom
SAUDI ARABIA's response to the Arab spring might be described as allergic. The tiniest whiff of protest last March prompted the government to outlaw demonstrations. Even as women, in effect, continue to be banned from driving, and dissidents jailed or banned from travelling, a new media law has clamped tighter restrictions on the press. Echoing events in tiny Bahrain, where the ruling family crushed Shia protests, Saudi security forces have responded to rising unrest in their country's east, among the kingdom's own 10% Shia minority, with blunt measures, including live gunfire that killed five protesters in recent months.
Instead, the immediate beneficiaries of the Arab spring in Saudi Arabia may be a new generation of comedians and artists. They certainly stole the limelight on 19th January, at the opening of “We Need to Talk”, organised in Jeddah, a Red Sea port city. Set in a bare-walled, unfinished shopping mall by Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative, the festival was billed as the most significant exhibition of contemporary art ever staged in the kingdom. Many of the 22 Saudi artists involved have repeatedly exhibited abroad, but until recently their work was felt to be unacceptable in the country where most of them live (see image). The upheavals across the Arab world last year appear to have changed that.
January 28, 2012 | The Economist
Alongside the artists—whose work looks at such issues as the ban on women driving, religious extremism, Saudi bureaucracy and cultural conservatism—were also young comedians who have shot to fame online in the last year. “We shouldn't think of what has happened in the region just in political terms,” says Aziz Shalan, one of the comedic collective telfaz11 (the “11” refers to 2011), whose latest video pokes fun at the Saudi religious police and was viewed more than a million times on YouTube in a week. “What happened here is something bigger. It's not political change, it's social change.”
Other artists and comedians share this attitude. They want social change, but without seeking confrontation with the government. Their target is ordinary people, and increasingly they collaborate.
Ten years ago it was largely impossible for either group to express themselves in Saudi Arabia to much more than a roomful of friends. The government controlled most channels of communication. Now artists and comedians can produce their work independently and use the internet to share it with their audience.
Abdulnasser Gharem, an army officer who is also one of the leading lights in Saudi contemporary art, describes the growing movement as an evolution. It is often assumed the divisions in Saudi Arabia are religious or political, he says, but they are really between young and old. “After the Arab spring I think the older generation in Saudi has realised this. Now they want to hear the younger generation.”