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Saudi soft power: The changing face of Saudi Arabia

|By Alaa Al Ghamdi| One of the most common distinctions made in the discourse of international relations is that of hard versus soft power. Hard power refers to traditional modes of influencing international relations through force, such as through military might or economic power (such as withholding a critical natural resource like oil). Soft power refers to cultural power, such as the arts, intellectual ideas, and tourism. Saudi Arabia has traditionally been thought of as a Middle Eastern nation which has primarily exercised its influence through hard power, thanks to its abundant supply of oil. However, as a nation, in recent years it has attempted to extend the reach of its soft power.

A good example of a new artistic exhibition that is challenging the conventional image of Saudi Arabia can be seen in the works of photographer Manal AlDowayan, who was recently exhibited in the Alãan  Artspace. Many of her works have explicit feminist themes, such as her work Esmi — My Name, which discusses the cultural restriction against speaking women’s names and her I Am series which confronts the limitations on women’s professional and personal life in Saudi Arabia. AlDowayan comes from a family with connections in the oil industry and many of her works deal with the ambiguity of her feelings in regards to this; her work thus also demonstrates that even though the legacy of oil casts a long shadow in Saudi Arabia, it has still inspired a creative artistic response that has been fruitful.

Despite the threat of censorship, Saudi Arabia also has a proud modern literary tradition. The author Abdul-Rahman Mounif wrote a five-part novel entitled The Cities Of Salt (1984-89) which was highly critical of the oil industry and social inequalities. The Saudi novelist Turki al-Hamad has produced a series of novels which discuss coming-of-age themes and deal with sexuality in a very frank manner. Of course, this is not to discount the fact that censorship has had a negative and stifling effect on many Saudi writers; but many still have been able to express complex and challenging ideas nonetheless, including ones which question conservative religious ideals.

Even the relatively new film industry in Saudi Arabia has produced cinematic works of note such as Wadjda (2012), a film directed and written by Haifaa Al Mansour. The award-winning film depicts the struggles of a young girl to get a bicycle and win a race against a neighborhood boy. The film is very honest about the prejudice and discrimination experienced by the girl in society where girls are not supposed to ride bicycles at all. She attempts to make money doing odd jobs and finally wins enough money in a competition reciting verses from the Koran—only to be denied the money when the teacher learns why she wants the bike. The film highlights the creative ways in which women fight against oppression in Saudi society and ends happily after the heroine’s mother leaves her father, cuts her hair short, and buys her daughter the green bike, allowing her daughter to win the race against the local boy.

Artistic expression is a critical way in which the world can get to know individuals from another culture in an individualized and empathetic manner. By seeing the world through the eyes of a protagonist of a film or novel, the listener or reader is able to view the world from a different perspective. The arts also highlight how no culture has an entirely homogenized perspective and that there are many challengers to the dominant worldview presented by news outlets. In the future, the acclaim given to Saudi artists will encourage consumers of art to learn more about the nation as a whole and reconsider any preconceptions they might have of the nation.

Also published on Medium.