Arab States Suddenly Want to Hug It Out With Western Culture

With acclaimed movie 'Dune' being filmed in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, and supermodel Naomi Campbell hosting a Saudi film festival, Arab states – and especially the Gulf – are heading toward a cultural change that regimes aren’t so opposed to

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Red Sea Film Festival chairman Mohamed Turki embracing British supermodel Naomi Campbell in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, this month.
Red Sea Film Festival chairman Mohamed Turki embracing British supermodel Naomi Campbell in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, this month.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

The “loudest music festival in the Middle East,” the four-day MDLBEAST International Music Festival was held for the second time in the Saudi capital Riyadh last week. It attracted a crowd of over 800,000, most of them young people, to a huge site prepared for performances by singers, artists and DJs. Among them were Nancy Ajram, Assala Nasri and well-known DJs such as David Guetta, Steve Aoki, DJ Snake and dozens of other artists who played mainstream and alternative music.

Huge screens beamed the performances to the ecstatic audience, social media spread the musical gospel and the Saudi Kingdom registered another important milestone on its upward trajectory on the international music map – not just in the name of the arts, but also for its economy and diversification of its revenue sources.

The cost of tickets for the events – from $36 for one show to $800 for all four days of the festival – may not have covered the enormous costs, but direct economic profit was not the most important product. The festival gave Saudi Arabia another certificate of excellence for how it is trying to change its image from a traditional, conservative and insular society to a modern and liberal one that listens to the hopes and aspirations of its youth.

The show, like all other cultural and artistic performances that the country has promoted over the past two years, was organized by a special committee. It was established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has been put in charge of a $64 billion budget to promote the entertainment, leisure and movie industries.

People attend the Soundstorm music festival, organized by MDLBEAST, in Banban on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 16.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region to adopt the entertainment industry as a means of diversifying vital revenue sources. The United Arab, Emirates, Oman, Jordan and, of course, Egypt – the Arab Middle East’s most senior entertainment giant – are all competing for this growing market.

Spearheading the movie and entertainment industry in the Emirates is the eponymous Majid Al Futtaim consortium. It began building its empire in 1992 through the construction of modern shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, hotels, and entertainment and leisure spots such as Ski Dubai and Ski Egypt, throughout the Middle East. The corporation has over 45,000 employees. Al Futtaim himself died earlier this month at the age of 87, and his place has been taken by his son, whose wealth is valued at over $4.3 billion.

The corporation’s movie arm, VOX, owns hundreds of movie theaters in 13 Arab countries. It plans to expand its network in Saudi Arabia, after Bin Salman canceled the Kingdom’s prohibition on building cinemas and screening movies in 2017.

The Red Sea International Film Festival which was held for the first time in Jeddah earlier this month attracted international stars such as supermodel Naomi Campbell who hosted the main ceremony and actor Ed Westwick. At the festival VOX committed to producing 25 new movies in the next five years. This is an important development in an industry that seems to be dying, especially after the blow dealt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from "Dune."

Alongside movie theaters and production, the Gulf states have discovered that they can also generate profits from the unique locations they offer – from deserts and canyons to sand dunes and the sea.

The recent remake of “Dune,” for example, was filmed in the deserts of Abu Dhabi and Wadi Rum in Jordan. The fifth and as-yet-untitled Indiana Jones movie, starring Harrison Ford, will also be filmed in Abu Dhabi, while the Gerard Butler movie “Kandahar” is being filmed in the stunning Al-Ula region in Saudi Arabia, where a special camp was set up with 150 housing units for the film crews.

In the competition between the Gulf states to lure international movie productions to their territories, they offer significant financial temptations – such as an exemption from VAT, military and air force assistance in photography and participation in expenses. Abu Dhabi, for example, offers a refund of around 30 percent of expenses, compared to 25 percent for Jordan, 20 percent for Morocco and 18 percent for Tunisia.

Egypt, the birthplace of Arab film, has been left behind. Although it offers sophisticated studios and tax exemptions, it cannot compete with the financial and technological temptations offered by the Gulf states. Movie production in Egypt has been dealt a severe blow in recent years, and it now produces on average just eight movies a year – compared to 120 a year in the golden age of Egyptian cinema.

People in the audience take pictures with their telephones during the first edition of the Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, this month.People in the audience ta

These enormous investments in the movie industry could have important implications not just on leisure activities, but also on culture in these countries in general. The industry needs to commit to nurturing a new generation of employees in all the field’s professions. It needs to train scriptwriters, directors, photographers, stagehands, managers and producers, and to open film departments in universities and courses for digital art. All of these could provide thousands of young people with new ways of making a living.

A distracted youth

But even before these young people turn to the movie industry, they are already active in a sector that is gaining traction and bringing in money. The gaming industry in the Gulf states grew by more than 14 percent in 2020. According to recent estimates, UAE citizens spend some $115 a year per person on video games. The gaming industry in Saudi Arabia is estimated to be worth $750 million, and it is expected to grow fourfold by 2030. Saudi Arabia was even chosen this year to host the biggest computer gaming tournament in the world.

No less important is the streaming industry, which is forecast to produce over 46 percent of all entertainment industry revenues in the Middle East.

British supermodel Naomi Campbell and Red Sea Film Festival Chairman Mohammed a-Turki posing for a photo during their tour of the ancient Nabatean site of Al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

These impressive figures express the deep changes that are underway in the leisure industry and the way in which regimes adapt culture to economic needs. Some 25 years ago, it was the satellite television networks such as Al Jazeera and MBC that created a communications revolution in the Middle East. They led to tectonic shifts in leisure culture and in the public’s awareness – suddenly, they became familiar with Arab and Western cultures via the small screen.

Over a decade ago, it was social media that rapidly circumvented limitations imposed by regimes and contributed to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Now, there is a millennial revolution, and it is being perceived by the regimes as a far more positive development than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like.

Young people busy playing video games, watching movies or spending time at the huge amusement parks that are opening at a rapid pace are better than young people busy making political tweets, calling for revolutions and holding protests that are critical of the regime. All the more so when these new sectors generate economic infrastructure for the unemployed and revenues for the state coffers, even if conservative and religious forces see in them a deviation from faith and the straight and narrow path.

However, the development of the entertainment industries might have a more important contribution to the development of modern legislation that the industry requires, such as legal protection of intellectual property rights, privacy laws and the need for a public debate on questions of artistic freedom of expression and its limitations.

These questions are still being decided randomly and in accordance with the whims of regimes in which parliaments (in countries that do have parliaments) are generally no more than a rubber stamp. These regimes – and especially the Saudi regime, which several years ago formulated its Vision 2030 – will have no alternative but to adapt to these legal requirements.

Meanwhile, it worth noting that the entertainment industry is being employed as an economic and civil lever, and not just as a means of propaganda by which regimes shape public opinion. On the contrary, it is the audience that is laying down the infrastructure for this revolution, and it will dictate its demands to the regimes.

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