How language and culture became pillars of Saudi-China friendship

King Salman launching the King Abdulaziz Public Library at Peking University in Beijing. (SPA)
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Updated 07 December 2022

How language and culture became pillars of Saudi-China friendship

  • Celebration of Chinese New Year as part of Riyadh Season marked the start of a new era in bilateral relations
  • Exchanges of books, artistic fusions, and a cultural cooperation award have helped cement the relationship

RIYADH: Since Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China formalized diplomatic relations in 1990, cultural ties between the two countries have blossomed into a robust relationship based on mutual respect.

Affirming the importance of this deep friendship, the iconic Boulevard Riyadh City in February this year celebrated Chinese New Year as part of the Riyadh Season entertainment festival.

The colorful occasion was attended by Chen Weiqing, the Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, officials from the embassy, and a large number of visitors.

The celebration took several forms across the Boulevard zone. All its screens were lit red by midnight, displaying beautiful Chinese cultural images such as traditional houses and red lanterns, with congratulatory remarks written in Chinese, Arabic and English.

On the occasion Weiqing told Arab News: “The Spring Festival is the most important traditional festival for the Chinese people. The Boulevard Riyadh City lights up the symbolic red color of China, letting the Chinese people around the world feel the cordial greetings and best wishes from our Saudi friends.”

He added: “This is a great honor to celebrate our Lunar New Year, and we hope in this new year we will strengthen our bilateral relationship and friendship in different fields. This is the beginning of a new cultural era in bilateral relations. We have a lot of common principles, now we have a very strong cultural linkage, so I think in the future China and Saudi Arabia will be one of the closest partners.”

Further strengthening the cultural bonds, the world premiere of “Nine Songs” last Saturday filled the Saudi city of AlUla with excitement, with every seat occupied at the outdoor Wadi Al-Fann venue.




Chen Weiqing Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Xihong (Left) and Mansour Al-Zamil, General Secretary of King Fahd National Library (Right) unveil the Chinese Books Corner at the King Fahd Public Library. (AN photo/Meshaal Al-Qadeer)

Created especially for AlUla by Rui Fu, the Chinese musician, vocalist and artistic director, “Nine Songs” brought together a world-class ensemble of performers from across the globe. Fu’s vocals were accompanied by new compositions played on violin, harp, dulcimer, oud, guqin and taiko drums, with remarkable costumes, scenery and lighting adding to the theatrical display.

Fu’s new work is inspired by the Chu Ci (Songs of Chu), an ancient anthology of Chinese poetry from the first century B.C., while also responding to AlUla’s stunning geological structures.

In June this year King Fahd National Library in Riyadh added to its collection Chinese books donated by the National Library of China.

The books — covering subjects including history, economics, tourism and culture — are distributed in Arabic and English. They include literature on the Chinese language and some for children, which serve as an opportunity for Saudis to become familiar with the country and its culture.

Dr. Mansour bin Abdullah Al-Zamil, secretary of the King Fahd National Library, said: “We attach great importance to strengthening cooperation in the cultural field with the National Library of China.”

In July this year China’s Sinopec, one of the largest energy and chemical companies in the world, gifted 2,000 books on Chinese culture to King Fahd National Library.

It was marked in a ceremony attended by senior officials from both countries, including Beijing’s ambassador, who inaugurated the Chinese books corner at the library.




Chinese New Year starts after the rising of the second new moon after the winter solstice. (Supplied)

The section was established by Sinopec as part of its mission “to offer a window on China for Saudi citizens, provide reference books for students, beneficiaries, and graduates, and provide support for teaching Chinese in the Kingdom.”

Significantly, Saudi Arabia announced a cultural cooperation award with China on the occasion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the country in February 2019.

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, the Saudi minister of culture, announced the “Prince Mohammed bin Salman Award for Cultural Cooperation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China.”

The announcement was made during Prince Badr’s visit to the King Abdulaziz Public Library at Beijing University. The library was inaugurated in 2017 by King Salman during his official visit to China, when the monarch was also awarded an honorary doctorate.

The cultural award honors outstanding Saudi and Chinese academics, linguists and innovators. The categories include for the best scientific research in the Arabic language, artistic creative work, translation of a book from Arabic to Chinese and vice versa. In addition, there are prizes for personality of the year and the most influential personality in cultural circles for the year. The awards form part of the common objectives of both the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“This partnership in the name of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is an embodiment for joint commitment to building cultural bridges between the two countries, developing the cultural exchange and enhancing artistic and academic opportunities for our citizens,” the minister has said.

During the crown prince’s 2019 tour Saudi Arabia and China agreed to include the Chinese language as part of the curriculum at schools and universities in the Kingdom. 




King Salman with Chinese officials at the launch of the King Abdulaziz Public Library at Peking University in Beijing. (SPA)

The agreement came during a meeting between the crown prince and a high-level Chinese delegation in Beijing, in a bid to strengthen bilateral friendship and cultural cooperation.

The inclusion of the Chinese language is aimed at enhancing the cultural diversity of students in the Kingdom. It is an important step toward opening new academic horizons for students of various educational levels, will serve as a bridge between the two people, and promote trade and cultural ties.

Moreover, King Abdulaziz Public Library in April this year signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bayt El-Hekma Chinese Group as part of the two nations’ cultural cooperation. The MoU includes joint translations and publications, mutual visits, and the holding of scientific meetings and specialized exhibitions.

Prince Badr held a virtual meeting with the Chinese ambassador in April 2021 to discuss ways to enhance Saudi-Chinese cultural exchange, including with regard to the Prince Mohammed bin Salman award and the Saudi-Chinese Cultural Year initiative.


Saudi Arabia strongly condemns Pakistan blast, offers condolences for victims 

Updated 31 January 2023

Saudi Arabia strongly condemns Pakistan blast, offers condolences for victims 

  • Saudi Arabia says it stands by Pakistan against all forms of violence, extremism
  • Blast inside mosque in northwestern Pakistan killed over 80 people on Monday

ISLAMABAD: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday strongly condemned a bomb blast that took place in northwestern Pakistan, killing over 80 people and injuring several others, saying that it stands by the people of Pakistan after the attack. 

Eighty-three people were killed and over 50 were injured when a blast ripped through a mosque located in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Monday afternoon, during Zuhr prayers, a hospital spokesperson confirmed. 

The mosque was located inside a compound where the headquarters of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police is located. Militant groups have stepped up attacks against security forces in Pakistan ever since a fragile truce between the Pakistani Taliban and the state broke down last year. 

A senior Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander claimed responsibility for the Peshawar blast. However, hours after the attack, the TTP released a statement distancing itself from the episode, saying that it did not target the mosque. 

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's strong condemnation and denunciation of the terrorist attack that took place at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan," Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. 

The Kingdom stated its "firm position" against targeting places of worship and shedding the blood of innocent citizens. "The Ministry also affirms that the Kingdom stands by the brotherly Islamic Republic of Pakistan against all forms of violence, extremism, and terrorism, regardless of its motives or justifications."

Saudi Arabia condoled with the families of the victims and wished a speedy recovery to the injured. 


Saudi Arabia condemns ‘provocative’ Qur’an burning in Denmark

Updated 29 January 2023

Saudi Arabia condemns ‘provocative’ Qur’an burning in Denmark

  • The foreign ministry reiterates the Kingdom 'strongly rejects all these blatant acts'
  • Saudi Arabia calls on European governments to urgently address all these practices

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Saturday strongly condemned the burning of copies of the Qur’an by extremists in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, “in a new provocative step to the sentiment of millions of Muslims around the world.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated the Kingdom’s position, which “strongly rejects all these blatant acts that have unfortunately been repeated in several European capitals recently, under the pretext of freedom of expression, without a clear reaction toward stopping these practices.”

The Kingdom called on all European governments in which these extremist violations occurred, to urgently address all these practices that contribute to fueling hatred and conflict between followers of religions, the ministry said in a statement.

Rasmus Paludan, a far-right activist who holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship, already infuriated the Muslim world by staging a Qur’an-burning protest in Sweden on January 21. On Friday, Paludan replicated the stunt in front of a mosque as well as the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen and vowed to continue every Friday until Sweden is admitted into NATO.

Several regional and international organizations, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim World League, Arab Parliament and Gulf Cooperation Council, also issued statements strongly denouncing the incident, along with Pakistan, Jordan, Turkiye and Oman.


Saudi Arabia’s Qemam festival becomes an annual showcase for the world’s mountain tribal cultures

Updated 28 January 2023

Saudi Arabia’s Qemam festival becomes an annual showcase for the world’s mountain tribal cultures

  • Asir’s historical palaces hosted bands and dance troupes from across the world for the week-long event
  • Traditions of highland communities were highlighted by the second edition of the festival for performing arts

ABHA: For centuries, mountain tribes have maintained their traditional way of life in some of the world’s most isolated places, preserving a distinctive linguistic and cultural heritage that is rarely seen or heard by wider society. 

That is why Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Asir region recently hosted the second annual Qemam International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts, inviting 14 international groups and 16 Saudi ensembles to share their unique dance and storytelling traditions.

A international musical ensemble performs during the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

The week-long event, which closed on Jan. 27, is thought to be the world’s first festival dedicated to performing arts from mountainous regions, featuring acts from Morocco, China, South Korea, Switzerland and India, among other places, to explore their common themes of artistry.

Performances were held at Asir’s Malik Historical Palace, Al-Mushait Palaces, the Castles of Abu Nuqata Al-Mutahmi, Basta Al-Qabil, Abu Shahra Palace in Al-Masqi, Shamsan Castle and Bin Adwan Heritage Village.

 

 

Festival-goer Abdullah Al-Shehri rarely finds opportunities to expose his 4-year-old, Fahad, to his family’s Moroccan heritage. He was therefore thrilled to attend a performance of the Berber ahidouss dance by a visiting Moroccan folk troupe.

“This festival calls for people to see something new. There’s definitely much to see,” Al-Shehri told Arab News.

Abha was the first city in the Kingdom to win the Capital of Arab Tourism title in 2017. The Qemam festival is only the latest event in the region’s cultural calendar that is proving a draw for domestic and foreign tourists alike.  

“I think the program will make Saudi Arabia an international center for mountain performing arts as it’s going to be an annual event and attract more and more participation from around the world. Hopefully, it will attract more tourism as well,” Sultan Al-Bazei, CEO of the Theater and Performing Arts Commission, told Arab News.

Last year’s festival saw a gathering of troupes from all of the Kingdom’s mountainous areas, from Tabuk in the north to Najran in the south. This year saw an expanded program, creating a cross-cultural dialogue between mountain cultures worldwide.

A international troupe performs during the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

“This will make it a unique opportunity for researchers to study the similarities, if there are any, or the differences between the performing arts of the mountain areas around the world,” Al-Bazei said.

“We think that most of the body movements have similarities of some sort. It’s very important for people to see other cultures, how they celebrate with dances and songs of their own.”

At the festival’s opening ceremony, the various international troupes performed together as part of a cross-cultural parade.

“During this parade, some of the groups were dancing together, sometimes to the tunes and rhythms of the others, which actually makes the point that culture and art bring people together,” Al-Bazei said.

International troupes took part in the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts opening and parade. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

Anthropologists and performers view folk dancing as a form of storytelling using a universal language. 

“It’s like art. For us, it lives in our blood. It’s not only history. This is life, and if you come to our performance, you will see that every dancer’s eyes are happy. It’s our happiness to dance,” Bachana Chanturia, artistic director of the Georgian National Ensemble, told Arab News.

The group was first established in Sukhumi under the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in 1931 with the name Apkhazeti. It later relocated to Tbilisi, Georgia, after the 1992 war.

Composed of 70 members, the group uses music and dance to showcase Georgian history. In contrast with most traditional dance companies within the region, the ensemble innovates traditional folklore by incorporating new trends, concepts, and modes of storytelling.

 

 

At the Qemam festival, the group performed a 20-minute show at the Shamsan Historical Palace consisting of three dances — shvante, chamba and vazha — earning perhaps the biggest round of applause of the entire festival.

Using quick, dynamic motions, the mixed-gender dance troupe’s performance tells the story of the Svanetians, a people of the highland region of Svaneti in northwest Georgia, near the border with Russia — a Caucasus area characterized by snow-capped peaks and deep gorges.

A international ensemble performs during the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

The group’s performance then transitions into a traditional Abkhazian dance, telling a thrilling story of a competitive horse race over the mountains, complete with equestrian clothing.

The dance is an emblem of love, courage, respect for women and competition through the imitation of mountain wildlife. The routine ends with the Vazha mountain sequence originating from Georigia’s Khazbegi region.

In Georgia, artistic performances are woven into the fabric of the community. From the age of 5 or 6, children are taught to dance, sing and play musical instruments and are later encouraged to join one of the many professional dance groups.

Musicians from various parts of the world take part in the Qemam International Festival in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

From the mountain city of Baysun, Uzbekistan, the song and dance ensemble Navbakhor brought the traditional Soul of Baysun dance to the peaks of Abha.

“It’s a special dance where they imitate some instruments, (wear special) hats, and each movement has an idea. It’s not just a dance, it’s a philosophy of the region of Uzbekistan,” Alibek Kabdurakhmanov, who heads the ensemble, told Arab News.

Under the Uzbekistan State Philharmonic, the group works to popularize the musical and choreographic arts of the country. Its members wear bright traditional clothing made from colorful shades and embroidered with gold thread.

According to Kabdurakhmanov, the group’s aim is to encapsulate the energy and universal message of peace embraced by the people of Baysun.

A Saudi artisan showcases her work as part of the festival in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

Kabdurakhmanov commended the Saudi Ministry of Culture for establishing the mountain performing arts festival and for prioritizing the preservation of cultural heritage.

“I think you will do very important things,” said Kabdurakhmanov. “When Uzbek nationals visit for the first time, they will see your history, your traditions, your culture, and take some part of you and bring it back to our country.

“I think it’s the most important part of development, and people in Saudi Arabia will see other cultures. It’s good for integration.”

A Montenegrin group presented a dance titled, “The dance from old Montenegro,” representing the region’s mentality, communicated through bird-like movements between mountain peaks.

A Montenegrin troupe performs “The dance from old Montenegro.”  (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

Led by artistic director Mirsad Ademovic, members of the Montenegrin Cultural and Artistic Association Ramadan Sarkic wore national costumes from all over the region, including several museum pieces.

Montenegro itself is a multicultural nation, home to many Albanians and Bosnians. The incorporation of various identities has been crucial to maintaining peace in the Balkan region, Ademovic told Arab News.

He says the festival offered an opportunity for Montenegro and Saudi Arabia to connect through the art of storytelling.

Saudi artists perform the traditional sword dance as they lead the parade during the opening day of the Qeman International Festival in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

This year’s event featured Saudi folk dances including the ardah, a form of performative martial arts widely performed in the Asir region and inspired by historical battles, now reimagined as a tool for storytelling.

“Folklore is greatly appreciated by many viewers and visitors, conveying to them the remarkable nature of the region and its past,” Abdullah Al-Shaher, the ardah group’s coordinator, told Arab News.

“Such festivals preserve the Kingdom’s heritage in general and pass it on to future generations and invite everyone to be a member of the participating troupes to pass on what they inherited from their ancestors.”

 


Study on Saudi workplace wellness identifies key challenges, suggests solutions

Updated 27 January 2023

Study on Saudi workplace wellness identifies key challenges, suggests solutions

  • Report by Tuhoon, a Saudi tech startup founded in 2021, incorporates feedback from 4,000 employees
  • Culture surrounding mental health in the Kingdom appears to be improving despite limited available data

DUBAI: Although mental health issues present a significant challenge to productivity, a benchmark survey in Saudi Arabia has revealed yawning gaps between the services that human resources departments claim to provide and what employees believe is actually on offer, with employees largely unwilling to discuss workplace stress.

For the report, entitled “State of Wellness at the Workplace,” researchers talked to 4,000 employees in the Kingdom’s public and private sectors to assess where challenges arise in the workplace and how to fix them.

The study, which was compiled by Tuhoon, a Saudi tech startup founded in 2021, was carried out in collaboration with the Saudi National Center for Mental Health and the Ministry of Health. 

“The surveys were filled out anonymously, which made workers more receptive to talk about their issues,” Tuhoon CEO Fares Ghandour told Arab News.

“We found females are more willing to talk on a personal level but they opt out of discussing their mental health in the workspace as they do not wish to be perceived as weaklings. We also found workers above the age of 45 are less likely to talk about their mental health than younger generations.”

Tuhoon recently launched a smartphone app designed to help users improve their mental health, manage stress and get better quality of sleep through personalized, culturally relevant audio content.

This content includes meditation and mindfulness exercises, sleep stories, masterclasses, book summaries, deep-focus music, and emergency playlists. It is curated by doctors, clinical psychologists, and certified meditation and self-awareness coaches.

The study indicates that more than 80 percent of Saudi workplaces have no budget to support the mental health of their employees, despite the rising number of workers reporting a decline in their well-being.

The report says that the lack of mental health monitoring has taken a significant toll on the cultural and economic performance of many organizations, and the private sector is perceived as offering less assistance than the public sector.

According to the report, most workplaces are failing to prioritize the mental health of employees. It says that 78 percent of organizations do not measure their workers’ mental health at all, 82 percent have no dedicated resources for mental health services, and 52 percent do not provide health insurance cover for mental health.

It also says that at least four out of five employees experienced at least one mental health problem in the past year. The most common symptoms were anxiety, burnout and stress, as well as depression, relationship challenges and loneliness.

The available data on the issue of wellness in Saudi workplaces, including details of programs and benefits employers offer their workers, remains limited but the culture surrounding mental health does appear to be improving.

However, the Arab world in general lags in this regard which Ghandour says is why he founded Tuhoon.

“I have been investing in tech businesses for nine years,” he told Arab News. “I decided I wanted to build and invest in something I am passionate about, and the mental health cause is dear to me.

“I approached Dr. Naif Almutawa, a clinical psychologist, and Aymane Sennoussi, who became co-founders, and I put my time, energy and effort into making Saudi Arabia and the Arab world a happier and healthier place.”

Mental health problems are among the leading causes of disability worldwide, with depression topping the list. They can affect people regardless of age, culture and socioeconomic status.

The World Health Organization estimates a quarter of the global population will suffer a mental health issue at some point during their lives, and that about 12 billion working days are lost each year to depression and anxiety at an annual cost of $1 trillion in lost productivity.

The Tuhoon survey of Saudi workplaces posed the question: “How would you rate your mental health over the past 12 months on a scale, from 0 to 4?” It found that 24 percent of respondents ranked their mental health as below average.

Almost a quarter of respondents ranked their mental health below average, with 44 percent of Saudi women and 32 percent of Saudi men in the workplace prone to burnout. (Shutterstock)

Among the respondents, women were 62 percent more likely to develop a mental health problem than men, while 44 percent of women in work were found to be prone to burnout and anxiety compared with 32 percent of men.

The research also revealed that 57 percent believed work-related stress affected their mental well-being.

Of the 50 human resources departments that were surveyed, 59 percent said their organizations did not provide mental health insurance coverage, and 82 percent said their companies did not have an employee assistance program. EAPs are designed to help workers resolve professional and personal problems that might be affecting their productivity.

The results of the Saudi surveys compare with the findings of a 2022 workplace report entitled “Mental Health in America” in which one-third of HR professionals said their organization provided no mental health services to employees, 27 percent said their organization was not sure of the proper benefits to provide, and 18 percent said their organization was unsure of what plan or insurance to offer workers.

In the UK, according to a 2022 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, there is weak leadership on the issue of mental health in the workplace, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Figures show that only 29 percent of employers are able to spot early signs of mental health problems in their workers. Less than half (42 percent) of employers said that their leaders focus and encourage positive mental health by actions and behavior.

Good mental health is viewed as a key measure of prosperous and successful nations and organizations.

The Kingdom’s public sector scored higher (45 percent) than the private sector (36 percent) in terms of the proportion of employers that offered health insurance coverage that includes mental health services. Ghandour believes this is because the public sector plays such a major role in the Saudi economy, and so employees are looked after relatively well in an effort to maintain high productivity levels.

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According to studies by the Arab Barometer research network, however, more than half of residents in the Arab world find it hard to find decent mental health services. And globally, organizations struggle in the execution of HR policies designed to support mental health.

In 2019, the Saudi National Mental Health Survey found that 34 percent of people had experienced a mental health issue at some point in their lives, with blue collar-workers more open to reporting the challenges they faced than their white-collar counterparts.

It also found the most prevalent mental illnesses in the Kingdom were separation anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, social phobia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Better-educated Saudis were more prone to such conditions.

Some 80 percent of respondents afflicted by a serious mental illness said they had not sought any treatment, while 8.9 percent said they had gone to a religious adviser or non-medical healer for help.

Experts say that to promote a healthier work culture, employers need to prioritize well-being, work to reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and provide mental health coverage for employees.

Tuhoon believes workplaces need to start viewing mental health as a collective issue rather than an individual problem. It recommends nine cost-effective steps to improve workplace mental health and, as a result, boost productivity.

These steps include workshops to raise awareness of the issue, and webinars on topics such as stress management, dealing with burnout, and increasing connectivity between workers. It also suggests offering additional days off to increase morale, training managers to spot mental health problems in workers, and creating a more welcoming and trusting work environment.

I decided I wanted to build and invest in something I am passionate about, and the mental health cause is dear to me,” said Fares Ghandour, CEO of Tuhoon. (Supplied)

Furthermore, Tuhoon urges employers to promote workplace behaviors that reduce burnout by encouraging workers to take time off if needed, offering a more flexible work environment, promoting a healthy balance between work and personal life, and creating a “check in” culture.

Additional recommendations include encouraging employers to use mental health assessments as a tool to measure stress and challenges, and to connect workers with helpful resources if needed.

Tuhoon says mental health “first aid” courses could also provide staff with the skills they need to detect the early signs of stressors and provide solutions and rapid responses to help distressed workers.

This could further reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. Appointing “mental health ambassadors” would also contribute to more open and supportive conversations in the workplace.

Regarding the well-being of women in particular, Tuhoon urges employers to adjust workplace policies and encourage female employees to report harassment and sexual assault through the provision of a proper platform for doing so. Salaries and promotions must also be fairly determined regardless of gender.

Finally, employers and employees are encouraged to show gratitude in the workplace and introduce mechanisms through which workers feel able to talk about things or people they are grateful for inside and outside of work.

Tuhoon believes this could lead to enhanced job satisfaction, fewer sick days, the promotion of a positive and more trusting work environment, and increased productivity.


Saudi Arabia stages first ever Biennale for Islamic Art in Jeddah

Updated 26 January 2023

Saudi Arabia stages first ever Biennale for Islamic Art in Jeddah

  • Artworks by 60 established and emerging artists from Saudi Arabia and around the world have been displayed at the event
  • The idea of Islam is the unifying element at the biennale that continues to connects cultures and people throughout the world

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia witnessed a historic moment with the opening of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale, which presented historic and contemporary works of Islamic art from around the world.

On the evening of Jan. 22, the Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah was filled with crowds of people waiting in eager anticipation. This was not the usual throng of pilgrims that use the terminal each year to travel to Makkah for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, but one awaiting the beginning of another voyage — a metaphorical one into the realm of Islamic art through the first-ever Islamic Arts Biennale hosted by the Kingdom. 

The crowd gathered under the impressive canopies of the Hajj Terminal, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which won the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The biennial event, which includes many newly-commissioned and never-before-seen works of art, marked a historic moment not just for Saudi Arabia and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation that staged the event, but for the legacy of Islamic art, which has witnessed hardly any large-scale international exhibitions since the 1976 World of Islam Festival in London.

Jeddah’s inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale celebrates the legacy of Islamic art in a place close to Makkah, the fountainhead and cradle of Islam, while forging a dialogue between the past, present and future through contemporary artworks by 60 established and emerging artists from Saudi Arabia and around the world, and with over 60 new commissions and 280 historical artifacts. 

A woman walks by a display at the Islamic Arts Biennale staged at the Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah. (AN Photo by Ali Khamaj)

The effect is illuminating, mystical and enlightening in that this biennial, like its theme “Awwal Bait” which means “First House” in Arabic, celebrates the beauty and heritage of Islamic art in the birthplace of Islam.

“The Islamic Biennale, staged in this location at the Western Hajj Terminal, has meaning and anticipation for the future,” Saad Alrashid, a leading Saudi scholar, archaeologist and one of the curators of the event, told Arab News.

“Jeddah is the gate of the Haramain and has a deep history. There is an accumulation of strata of civilization in Saudi Arabia and throughout the ages this area was the crossroads of civilization between East and West and up to the North. Staging the Islamic Biennale here presents to the world the idea of connection between all Muslims and everybody that comes and goes from Saudi Arabia geographically, historically and politically.”

In the same vein, the theme “Awwal Bait” explores how the Holy Kaaba in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah aim to inspire Muslims both culturally and metaphysically to explore their sense of belonging and ponder the definition of home.

“At its core, the Biennale is about giving contemporary objects a home by giving them a lineage and giving historic objects a home by giving them a future,” Sumayya Vally, artistic director of the Biennale, told Arab News. 

Artwork displayed at the Islamic Arts Biennale staged at the Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah. (AN Photo by Ali Khamaj)

“Seeing the Biennale come to life through the voices and perspectives of our artists has been profound,” she added. “Each of them has boldly and sensitively taken on the opportunity of this platform to contribute to an emerging discourse on Islamic arts that we hope will continue.”

Staging the Islamic Arts Biennale was the result of a global effort. More than 18 local and international institutions, including the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, alongside artifacts loaned by other prestigious international institutions with an interest in Islamic Arts, such as Benaki Museum in Athens, the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford, the Louvre in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Biennale was curated by a multi-disciplinary group of specialists, including Omniya Abdel Barr, an Egyptian architect and Barakat Trust Fellow at the V&A, and Julian Raby, director emeritus of the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

“It was challenging to find objects that have survived that were made in Makkah and Madinah,” said Abdel Barr to Arab News. “We searched within collections to see how we could create a conversation between historic objects while also keeping in mind the contemporary context and this was the most interesting part.”

Regionally, the Diriyah Biennale Foundation has secured loans for the exhibition from institutions such as the King Abdulaziz Library, the National Museum, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and King Saud University — all in Riyadh — and Makkah’s Museum of Antiquities and Heritage, the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques and Umm Al-Qura University. From the wider region, works have been loaned from the Al-Sabah Collection and Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah in Kuwait, the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, and the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, among others. 

Man taking a picture of the artwork displayed at the Islamic Arts Biennale staged at the Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah. (AN Photo by Ali Khamaj)

The viewing experience is mystical, like a pilgrimage in itself. It begins in darkness with American Lebanese artist Joseph Namy’s commission “Cosmic Breath” presenting recorded calls to prayer from countries around the world played together, working as if in unison with the installation across the room by Saudi artist Nora Alissa, titled “Epiphamania: The First Light,” which depicts various black and white shots of pilgrims around the Kaaba shot impressively from beneath her abaya. Nearby is an Islamic astrolabe that is positioned towards Makkah. The trio of works mark the first example in the carefully curated show, demonstrating the dialogue generated from historic and contemporary Islamic works of art.

The structure of the Biennale is divided into four galleries and two pavilions that house artworks regarding daily Islamic rituals and Hajj. These sections intend to evoke both personal and collective emotions about the spiritual life of Muslims around the world. 

Large-scale, newly-commissioned works are found outside around the terminal’s expansive and evocative canopies, amid rays of sunlight and views of Jeddah that periodically include airplanes taking off high into the sky. The works outside communicate with nature and the Aga Khan award-winning architecture of the terminal itself.

Outside are also the pavilions of Makkah and Madinah, which present material from the Two Holy Mosques, Masjid Al-Haram and from the Hujra Al-Sharifa in Madinah. The focus here is on the initial journey that the Prophet Mohammad and his followers took from Makkah to Madinah to escape persecution. The objects on display, once again a mixture of historic and contemporary, shed light on the sense of universal belonging that ensues from the Muslim pilgrimage and journey home afterward.

Surrounding the pavilions are works by artists including Dima Srouji, Shahpour Pouyan, Moath Alofi, Reem Al-Faisal, Alia Farid, and Leen Ajlan. 

Display of Islamic art at the Islamic Arts Biennale staged at the Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah. (AN Photo by Ali Khamaj)

Of note is Bricklab’s architectural installation “Air Pilgrims Accommodation 1958” inspired by Jeddah’s historic Hajj housing, which Vally describes as a site that “gathered people from all over the world to stay in one place — a place for cultural production and trade.”

“The idea emanating from the works outside is for them to generate invitations for gathering, for discussion and exchange,” Vally told Arab News.

This is reflected in Tanzanian artist Lubna Chowdhary’s “The Endless Iftar” which is a 40-meter-long table inspired by rituals of eating and gathering from around the world during Ramadan.

Also positioned outside is “My Place is the Placeless” by Iranian London-based artist Shahpour Pouyan, presenting three large-scale differently colored architectural domes that represent the three major traces in the artist’s DNA after he took a test that revealed his origins go beyond his native Iran to include Scandinavia, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East.

“It’s about human interconnectedness in an effort to break down ethnic labels and identities,” Pouyan explained to Arab News. 

Like the other works on show, Pouyan’s work reflects not just on Islamic culture but on its universality, its ability to connect beyond the Middle East and offer a unifying force that goes beyond religion, nationality and culture.

As Alrashid states: “Islam is a communication of knowledge and culture.”

He added: “Since the 2030 Vision we sense that we are more welcoming just like the Makkans in the past welcomed visitors during Hajj.

“We are showing the whole world how they can enjoy Islamic art,” he said. “The Biennale is not just an exhibition or something from the past — it continues through culture, through integration with the multiculturalism of Muslims.”

Perhaps the most powerful theme of the exhibition is the idea of Islam and its art across the ages as a physical and metaphorical unifying element that continues to connect diverse cultures and people throughout the world. It is also a way, as Vally stressed to Arab News, “to define what it means to be Muslim from our own perspective, through our own art and culture to the rest of the world and to show how Islam has the power to unite us all, even non-Muslims, through its history, traditions and spiritual practices.”