Nearly seven years ago, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, the newly ascended crown prince of Saudi Arabia, then 31, sat relaxed in his palace as he explained on international television his ambitious plan to diversify the Arab economy away from oil. At the center of Saudi Vision 2030, as the plan was dubbed, was a mandate to develop—like its Gulf neighbors the United Arab Emirates—a formidable tourism sector.
“There are very large assets … areas that have not been developed yet, especially in the tourism field, or others,” bin Salman said. “I believe that the size of these assets will be one trillion riyals.”
Bin Salman’s tourism plan centered around AlUla, a desert region that has been described as an open-air museum for the 30,000 historical sites that dot the landscape, some dating back as far as 7,000 years. The most important is Hegra, the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and a Nabataean wonder of more than 100 tombs carved out of sandstone cliffs. Saudi Arabia is spending more than $35 billion over the next seven years, to turn the region, and Hegra, once a crucial trading post along the Silk Road, into a new kind of international crossroad, an official told Art in America.
The Kingdom hopes to draw over 2 million visitors to the region per year, a tall order for a country that up until a couple years ago allowed visitors only for religious pilgrimages.
France has been at the center of the project almost since the beginning, signing a 10-year, €30 million ($32.4 million) per year deal in 2018 to provide “expertise” in the development of luxury lodging, fine dining, horse-related sporting activities, artistic and cultural exhibitions, and artist residencies. Already, an international airport, a 12-mile greenway and tramline, numerous hotels, and an Arab history museum have opened or are in development.
But contemporary art, set amid AlUla’s ancient ruins and ocher desert canyons, is considered key as a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s much-touted liberalization and growing activity in the art market.
While the development has already seen its share of arts initiatives, it reached a new level in mid-March when France’s premier contemporary art museum, the Centre Pompidou, announced a long-gestating contract to help develop a museum at AlUla. But the project, like France’s greater involvement in AlUla, has left all parties to navigate the delicate politics of a long isolated and repressive kingdom gradually opening to the world.
An oil-rich Persian Gulf country supercharges its nascent tourism sector by opening a pricey new museum fusing East and West, with the assistance of the French. If you think the story sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The obvious point of comparison for the Pompidou project is the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In that landmark 2007 deal, the United Arab Emirates paid France €1 billion for a 30-year agreement that granted the new museum the priceless Louvre brand, as well as expertise and guidance on exhibitions and acquisitions, and, perhaps most crucially, art loans. Lots of art loans. When the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017, 17 French institutions shipped 300 artworks there, including works by van Gogh, Manet, and da Vinci.
While the agreement was criticized for “parachuting” the French brand into the UAE—as well as the alleged labor abuses involved in construction—the two countries see it as a success. The arrangement was extended in 2021 for an additional 10 years (and an additional €165 million), even as French officials have become embroiled in an international investigation concerning their role in questionable antiquities acquisitions at the Emirati institution.
Many in the overlapping French arts and diplomatic communities feel the success of that Louvre deal convinced bin Salman to solicit French expertise, driven by well-known rivalries in the region. But despite some conflation in the Western media and art outlets, leaders at the government-run French Agency for AlUla Development (AFALULA), which manages French involvement, insist the Pompidou deal has a lighter touch. (The Centre Pompidou did not respond to requests for comment.)
“We’re building with and for the Saudis to serve the project through a common venture. The idea is not to plant a flag in AlUla or create a [French] brand,” Sophie Makariou, scientific director in charge of culture and heritage programming for AFALULA, said.
The deal announced in mid-March does not confer the valuable Centre Pompidou name on the new museum, the concept for which was initially titled Perspectives Galleries, [the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) said a name for the institution was still being determined] and is noticeably smaller in scope, totaling $2.1 million per year, according to Le Monde. The Pompidou will provide expertise, training, and guidance in art conservation, education programming, and exhibition planning, AFALULA said in a release. Art loans are reportedly also included in the deal, though it is not clear to what extent.
The Pompidou has its own history of international expansions, having established branded satellite branches in Malaga in 2015 and Shanghai in 2019, with new editions to come in Brussels; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Seoul. And though the institution was also involved in the development of Louvre Abu Dhabi, AFALULA has said the agreement for the contemporary art museum is not structured like any of those others. The RCU, said Makariou, “doesn’t want a replica of what has been done elsewhere.”
The most obvious difference between AlUla and the Pompidou’s other projects is that the museum is not the sole stakeholder. The RCU told Art in America that the Pompidou will be one of many on the museum panel of experts, and the RCU is working with numerous international and regional partners.
The goal is to “reposition AlUla to be a global destination for art,” Nora Aldabal, executive director for Arts AlUla, said. “It’s important for us that our partners understand all the historic past of the place, and want to work on projects that speak to that past, and its community.”
Veteran British arts administrator Iwona Blazwick, who spent 20 years at the helm of London’s Whitechapel Gallery and is now co-leading the contemporary art project and advising the RCU, said the museum would highlight art from the region and under-represented parts of the world, while staying “committed to a carbon neutral model” inspired by the local architecture and environment.
“There’s a real amazing dynamic and active number of institutions emerging right across the Middle East, and also the broader global South,” said Blazwick. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to forge new networks and institutional exchange. It’s part of this wider ethos about building bridges with the outside world, because the Kingdom has been so isolated for decades.”
The AlUla project, like the Louvre Abu Dhabi before it, is part of France’s greater strategy to wield its soft power—or economic and cultural influence—through a variety of linguistic, economic, education, and cultural initiatives.
“In an overly competitive world, where the line that once separated soft power from traditional expressions of power is gradually fading, there is a pressing need to rethink the meaning, aims and tools of our cultural diplomacy and soft power,” Jean Yves Le Drian, then French foreign minister, said in late 2021. At the time, France released its first “consolidated doctrine” on the subject; on the cover was an image of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and it specifically named that project, and AlUla, as successful projections “of French expertise in the heritage, museum, or cultural fields,” a strategic priority.
Despite this stated objective, French officials have appeared sensitive to anything that might be interpreted as cultural chauvinism. In public missives, they regularly remind that the country has been involved in more than a dozen joint archaeological missions in AlUla since 2002, and that it was the Saudis who solicited French expertise.
“We certainly don’t want to influence the Saudis,” said Matthieu Peyraud, director of culture and soft diplomacy for France’s foreign ministry. Rather, the idea is “to position ourselves in a privileged manner within a bilateral relationship,” and in a context of “general competition,” he said.
The French-Saudi bilateral relationship is as delicate a diplomatic dance as it comes, and AlUla’s contemporary art museum is far from France’s sole project there. Though AFALULA does not contract French companies exclusively, some 250 are already involved. And, in February, the French agency and the RCU announced additional details for a long-planned cultural center that has been billed as an “incubator for artists and creators, structured around several complementary cultural spaces.” The center will include an art residency, craft and other workshops, exhibitions, master classes, and an annual festival. In a building next to the center will be a college created by Ferrandi, one of France’s top culinary and hospitality institutes.
Initially, the RCU suggested the creation of a French quarter. AFALULA executive chairman Gérard Mestrallet said his team politely nixed the idea. “The goal is not to impose anything at all,” he said. “We didn’t like the idea of something like a universal exhibition, where suddenly you have the beret and the baguette … We’re interested in universal culture.”
Instead, AFALULA and the RCU chose to call the center the Villa Hegra, conceived as part of the country’s long-standing network of cultural villas, including the Villa Medici in Rome, founded in 1666, and Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, established in 1992. The Saudi edition will be designed by 2021 Pritzker Prize–winners Lacaton & Vassal Agency. The villa will “engage in an artistic interchange between France and Saudi Arabia, and more broadly, between European and Arab cultures,” AFALULA said in February.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan is a wide-ranging proposal, spanning efforts to increase international trade, develop infrastructure and certain industries, and enact social reforms, particularly around women’s rights. But culture and the arts are at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to shift its reputation as one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
In addition to the AlUla project, the Kingdom has poured funding into the expansion and building of hundreds of museums and arts events in Riyadh and Jeddah, its capital and commercial center, respectively. The country opened its first new movie theater after a decades-long ban in 2018 and has begun hosting World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view events, Formula One Grand Prix races, the annual Red Sea Film Festival, and Noor Riyadh, an annual light festival.
“Culture is one of the areas that is both a tool and an objective, when it comes to Vision 2030,” said Yasmine Farouk, an expert on Saudi social and public policy. The development of the arts sector “is supposed to transform Saudi society, by changing the norms and value system, while also generating jobs,” she said. It, and the reforms, are meant to reshape the Kingdom’s image, while not dramatically changing the “socio-political norms” that have undergirded the regime’s authority.
Many, like Jeed Basyouni, who investigates the use of the death penalty across the Middle East and North Africa for the nonprofit Reprieve, are concerned that Saudi Arabia is using culture to “art wash” a more complex reality.
“The gap between the image of Saudi Arabia [that is] being sold to the world and the reality of an ever more repressive and violent state is frightening,” Basyouni said in an email. “Any artist exhibiting in Saudi Arabia or accepting Saudi patronage should know that this is a regime that executes child defendants and people whose only crime was attending demonstrations, seeking democratic rights that we take for granted.”
In January, Reprieve published a report with the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights that found an 82 percent increase in executions since 2015, roughly coinciding with bin Salman’s rise to power. And, in 2018, Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was executed by Saudi agents ordered, according to CIA reports, directly by bin Salman. Numerous companies pulled deals or returned Saudi funding in the immediate aftermath, but now, four years later and in a harsher economic climate, Saudi money has begun to look palatable again. In late 2021, the country began splashing tens of billions into the new LIV golf league, video game publishers, and Hollywood.
In the fine art world, however, criticism hasn’t abated. This past February, AlUla held the second edition of its arts festival, which included a large exhibition of work by Andy Warhol curated by Patrick Moore, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Titled “FAME,” the show was swiftly criticized for omitting the artist’s sexual orientation in a country that forbids homosexuality. In an interview with Art in America, Moore, who is gay, defended his decision not to address Warhol’s sexuality, saying that the show focused on the theme of fame, per its title, which fit current Saudi cultural interests. He said further that he did not experience censorship while working on the show, nor did he hide his orientation while in the Kingdom.
“None of the ‘criticism’ has really bothered me that much. It was more that I was excited about the experience,” Moore said of why he published an op-ed on Artnet in early March titled, “Why I have no regrets.”
Less-established artists and art industry workers who spoke to Art in America expressed concern that they could be “canceled” for collaborating on projects in Saudi Arabia, or embroiled in a commitment that their cultural coworkers rejected. One person with inside knowledge of efforts to recruit French cultural institutions to partner in AlUla said that the Pompidou initially met with internal hesitation from the museum’s union members over the project, due to concerns about working under Sharia law.
An artist who participated in the AlUla artist residency, organized by AFALULA and French
arts consultancy Manifesto, said she received “raised eyebrows” from people in the Western art world for attending the 12-week residency, which pays artists around $8,000 to give workshops
and create projects connected to the local population, history, and landscape.
The artist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of criticism,said other artists in the residency told her some collectors abruptly refused to buy work after learning about their involvement. “It’s really scary, because you don’t know if you’re going to get boycotted afterwards,” she said.
Such fears don’t seem to have slowed AlUla’s substantial cultural development. The California art exhibition Desert X has held two widely publicized editions there, and a series of large-scale land art installations have been commissioned for the region’s Wadi Al Fann, or Valley of the Arts. That project includes major American heavyweights like James Turrell and Michael Heizer, as well as Saudi artists like Manal al Dowayan, who is known for her work critiquing women’s rights in the Kingdom, and Ahmed Mater, who founded Edge of Arabia, an independent Saudi contemporary arts initiative that has sometimes showcased politically dangerous art.
“I totally respect someone saying: it’s not for me. I get that,” said Blazwick, who is overseeing the Wadi Al Fann project. “I hope that as things do liberalize and move to greater acceptance of different forms, that we’ll see it evolve. It’s going to be slow, but it’s happening. And I feel that if I can contribute to that, then I’ve done something very positive as a feminist.”
Still, an uncomfortable question remains: How real is Saudi Arabia’s social progress, and are projects like AlUla “art washing,” or are they contributing to the country’s liberalization? The answer is complicated, according to Gerald Feierstein, the former US ambassador to Yemen and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“The reforms are real, and they’re not going to be reversed,” he said. “[Bin Salman] is going where young Saudis want to go.”
At the same time, according to Feierstein, bin Salman has centralized power more than his predecessors. The model the crown prince appears to be pursuing is China: politically less open and more repressive, but socially and economically more open. “Any kind of democratic expression: if you want to tweet, say something on Facebook, sign a petition—it can get you in prison,” he said. Still, Saudi Arabia’s makeover isn’t a “phony Disney World.”
Mestrallet, AFALULA executive chairman, agreed. “It would be propaganda if we presented a false image. [The Saudis] are not communicating things that are not real,” he said.
The most visible change, aside from the influx of cultural funding, is a demonstrable opening of the arts scene; that, and the increased engagement with the West has created far more opportunities to exhibit, said one Saudi artist who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “Now it’s possible to have an art career, and the world knows that there are Saudi artists,” she said.
Mohammad Alfaraj, a 30-year-old Saudi artist from Al Hassa in eastern Saudi Arabia, participated in AlUla’s most recent artist residency, where he worked closely with local youth, making profoundly touching films drawn in the sand.
“Saudi Arabia has the right to portray itself differently, because for the longest time in the MENA region, we couldn’t—we didn’t have the tools,” said Alfaraj, who is represented by Athr, a Saudi contemporary art gallery. “Now I see the government supporting cultural practitioners, and whatever their reasons may be, at least we now have space, and we can move around in it.”
But, for international artists in the AlUla residency, the culture shock can be strong. While French artist Sara Favriau said she felt it was important for her to attend to understand Saudi culture, she also acknowledged the hardship and fear among locals was palpable. “It’s very hard to say things [in Saudi Arabia], because you’re in danger there. People can’t speak,” said Favriau.
While being careful during the residency about what she said publicly, she still managed to address sensitive topics around women’s rights and migrant workers through her art. A performance piece she made at AlUla, called “splintering,” featured seven local young men and women who were paid to crouch on the ground at an abandoned mud farm and crush rocks into red and ocher mineral fragments for two hours. While the film might not seem radical, the mere image of men and women working together, without face coverings, was unthinkable even a few years ago. The act was “of enormous political importance” both to the volunteers filmed, and the Saudis who now can see it, said Favriau.
This approach is similar to that of Saudi artists, who tend to address social or political issues subtly, whether by referencing once-banned practices, like listening to music in public and referring to pre-Islamic history, or by embedding codes into calligraphy and abstract forms. Context, as always in art, is everything. Though Westerners criticized FAME’s failure to mention Warhol’s sexuality, for Saudis, according to Alfaraj and other locals, the show was full of milestones: a known gay artist, figurative work—still rarely seen in Saudi Arabia—and, in one piece, Natalie Wood’s bare back.
For now, all the artists, culture workers, and government officials involved in projects like AlUla and the Centre Pompidou–led contemporary art museum continue the slow uncertain work of trying to facilitate Saudi Arabia’s opening, even as uncomfortable questions around “art washing” remain unresolved.
“Whether or not you agree with politics in the region, the idea is: How much of a positive contribution can you make?” said Alfaraj. “If you look at these people coming here, they are really genuinely interested, and want to add something to the place, and meet the people.”