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  • Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom by Sean Foley
  • Bernard Haykel (bio)
Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom, by Sean Foley. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019. 221 pages. $65.

This book is about the artistic and cultural movements in the visual arts, stand-up comedy shows, online YouTube videos, and longer feature-length films that have flourished in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the 21st century. The author, Sean Foley, a professor of Middle East and Islamic history, provides an exhaustive account of the development of each of these art forms over the last two decades, paying close attention to the principal artists and collectives and the effects of technological change, especially of the Internet and social media, on the arts. Virtually all the artists studied here are socially liberal and are pushing for greater personal freedom, the lessening of gender segregation and are critical of society's double standards with regard to hierarchies of race, social status, and regional identity. Professor Foley also explores the relationships these artists have with government authorities, wealthy merchant patrons, charities, and the outside world of Western art institutions and fairs. The creativity of these artists is quite compelling, and is presented in fine detail by the author, and this in turn helps illustrate that the Kingdom has a vibrant cultural scene and cannot be reduced, nor properly understood, by simply focusing on the hoary themes of royals, oil and Islam.

The author explains the role that these artists play in Saudi society, and makes the case that they should be seen as "organic intellectuals," men and women who are not part of the elite, yet who are able to "articulate feelings and experiences that the masses cannot easily express" (p. 5). He also describes them as "rooted cosmopolitans" (p. 23), who speak to, and embody, local concerns and issues but can still appeal to global cultural norms and whose artistic production is desired by Western museums and cultural venues. In addition, Professor Foley sees these artists as engaged in limited forms of political agency and as cautious advocates of cultural and social change, while remaining keenly aware of, and within, the limits of what an authoritarian state will permit by way of expression. Professor Foley makes the interesting point that one of the ways the artists' caution manifests itself is through the emphasis on collective authorship of artwork rather than individual attribution. In such collectivist ascriptions, Professor Foley perceives an element of tribalism and a rejection of Western norms of individuality. This last claim, about the tribe, is perhaps the most problematic and undertheorized in the book, not least because the artwork of some of these individual artists has fetched close of one million US dollars at auction, and none of the artists has invoked the tribe—a complex social and political construct in Arabia—to explain their work.

The author is aware that these artists were only able to emerge, and often thrive, because of the patronage, protection and sanction provided by one or another member of the Al Sa'ud royal family. Prince Khalid Al Faisal, for example, when he was governor of the 'Asir Region, patronized the Saudi Arts Movement, which includes the celebrated artists Abdulnasser Gharem and Ahmed Mater. And more recently many of the artists discussed in this book have been associated with Prince Muhammad bin Salman's charitable foundation MiSK. It is therefore difficult to see how these artists can be agents of change, unless this is in fact [End Page 679] a mutually shared goal with the authorities and thus ultimately serves a purpose for the country's leaders.

Professor Foley admits that these artists are often willful agents in the promotion of an agenda that the government, or some elements within the royal family, seek to advocate. This might be, for example, the loosening of norms regarding gender segregation, presenting an intellectual challenge to the religious reactionaries, the opening up of society to Western culture through comedy and film, or the marketing of Saudi Arabia to the West as an attractive and vibrant society. The book does not provide a convincing explanation for...


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pp. 679-680
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