Wided Rihana Khadraoui: Digitalizing Social Change through Cultural Institutions in Saudi Arabia
Cultural institutions are more relevant and accessible than ever before. In Saudi Arabia cultural institutions using online innovations and alternative platforms have promoted unprecedented level of inclusivity and development. Cultural institutions are expanding their reach and engaging on a grassroots level in the development of the country's creative scene.
It's often stated that we live in an increasingly narcissistic world obsessed with selfies, where hashtags are a necessary tool in keeping everyone in the loop and where a meal isn't a real meal until it's on Instagram. Ignoring all the pessimism, what is actually occurring with social media is truly phenomenal. Earlier this year, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform plans were debated online, with tens of thousands of young Saudis participating in the online conversation, using hash tags to exchange ideas and opinions on Twitter. 
In a country that, historically, has relied on informal feedback via tribal, religious, and business petitions, an invitation to debate, online via social media, the country's central economic reform policies is revolutionary. The media campaigns and digital interactions between the Al Saud monarchy and its subjects is a marked shift in not only the inclusive approach the ruling class is exhibiting towards their citizens, but also in the rules of communication engagement. The power of alternative communication platforms can not be disregarded. Domestic debate has traditionally been strictly regulated in Saudi Arabia, but digital technology is radically changing the communication landscape.
In changing the overall framework, cultural communication has also been dramatically altered. Social media has allowed Saudis to interact in ways that were difficult, if not impossible before, and the increase in engagement has been observed across society. Simply put, we are seeing a country that has traditionally had an issue with freedom of expression opening up these new channels, creating a more open 'culture of dialogue'  and revolutionizing what can be discussed, initiated, and promoted. New institutions grow out of a need and cultural institutions and innovators look for where there is space in society and emerge to fill that need.
The current evolution in digital communication and the accompanying alternative forms of content creation have helped create a completely new model of active cultural participants in Saudi Arabia. Artists and cultural institutions have now not only started engaging dynamically with their audiences, but also have the space to emerge as new self-supporting entities. Communication models in society have shifted from the one-to-one and one-to-many, to the many-to-many . In this dynamic shift, the conversations between institutions and their audiences have been dramatically altered, and allow audiences more space to express and define the conversation.
New alternative platforms, like incubators and artistic collectives such as Tashkeil and Onqoud both based in Jeddah, are appearing in Saudi Arabia's creative scene, and the overall air of inclusivity provided by technology will only further strengthen and develop the nascent creative scene in the country. These alternative platforms are stepping in as intermediaries between artists and audiences, new artists are emerging and, through accessible digital technologies, new communities are forming. Digital platforms aren't a radical extension of the newly digitalized content creation but rather a pragmatic approach, especially in Saudi Arabia. Current technological possibilities are providing organisations in the Kingdom with the best opportunity they have ever had to inform the global community about the country, change misconceptions, while simultaneously expanding and creating opportunities for their own citizens.
The transformative potential of digital platforms should not undermine the complexities of negotiating what is and isn't acceptable in a constantly shifting society. Rather these new alternative ways to communicate, collect like-minded individuals, and provide new opportunities outside of the traditional paradigms of political institutions and power structures is the new reality. It can be argued that the wider Saudi society remains strongly conservative when observed through these new platforms and channels, but different perspectives now have the space to also meet. The point here isn't just that we are now all global citizens, but rather that with so many platforms available, we now have a larger arsenal with which to impact in an increasingly interconnected world.
Horizontal Field of Play
Saudi Arabia is one of the largest social media markets in the Middle East. With 2.4 million users, Saudi Arabia is home to more than 40 per cent of all active Twitter users in the Arab region, and the country accounts for 10 per cent of all Facebook users in the Arab region and has the highest per-capita YouTube use of any country in the world.  By taking advantage of alternative platforms like social media, cultural and creative institutions have emerged and increased their visibility in society generally and become part of the mainstream social media conversation in the country, which is considerable in light of how central social media is in Saudi society.
There are changes in the notion of consumption, the concept that leans more towards a model of consumption as an active and creative work that provides the basis for re-developing the communication process.  Currently, there is an ongoing reconfiguration of cultural networks and a massive redistribution of cultural information and objects to society as a whole. It leaves society with the task of discerning meaning, dismantling and integrating information, and finally finding a way to make use of such information. 'In Saudi, people consider the virtual as the main venue for self-expression, since there is almost no other venue,' says Saudi Arabian artist, Ayman Zedani . Zedani is an experimental, visual artist who now works in Sharjah, UAE. He started using Instagram heavily in 2013 while he was still based in Riyadh after he began seeing, first hand, how the creative ecosystem was changing in Saudi Arabia. 'The opportunities that Instagram provides as a platform was an ability to give Saudi audiences an intimate look at what I was creating, and also gave me a new platform to promote my art and connect with other creatives,' he says.
Saudi Arabia's tech-savvy younger generation not only expects change in the social and political environment, but also a more open environment and, by extension, more interaction within their social spheres. While the role of creative institutions to disseminate information has been radically changed the role of the audience has also altered. Audiences are more responsive, and artists and other creatives have become responsible for creating and curating their own 'brand', especially within the context of Saudi Arabia's socially conservative context. 'I see Saudi as a sort of fertile ground for experimentation for a lot of these social media platforms. Social media has managed to have great propagation, especially among the young, and as a result I feel like most young Saudis are abreast of most of the new social media trends and are early adopters of these new trends,' says Yousef Alshaikh, a co-founder of Saudi-based creative incubator, Onquod.
'The age of receiving all your content and info from a corporate mass media channel is gone and the age of personal media is here to stay. Our personal take on social media is a combination of the traditional, promoting our activities and events and such, and real engagement in the form of online collaborations,' says Alshaikh. Alshaikh and his fellow cofounders, Soraya Darwish and Mariam Hamidaddin, actually first met through an online collaboration and eventually created their collective. Onquod has a two-fold mission of bringing together creatives and engaging with the community through their programs. The formation of Onqoud epitomizes a prevalent trend in Saudi Arabia's creative industries, where individuals initially meet online and later develop their shared goals in person via collaborations or projects. Onqoud is also indicative of the new emphasis on collaborative projects. These platforms bring together individuals, create opportunities and promote collaborations across a wide range of creative industries. Space is initially created online and then real-world collaborations and projects are made a reality via digital outreach.
Social Media: Changing Perspectives in Saudi Arabia
New digital technologies have the ability to act as catalysts. There has been a strong cultural shift towards audience-oriented approaches, where the conversation is two-way, and it has become an inseparable factor in how effective the relationship is between creative institutions and their audiences. 'Technology is a great aspect to strengthen the context to create a hyper-connected scene. As the saying goes "it's a brave new world" so the ones who will lead us to the future are the brave and new – in other words, the youth. I think engaging creative youths as a start-up will light the driving force in any political or historical context. Making them play an effective and important role will help in innovation, growth and the economy of any organization,' says Maryam Bawazir of PechaKucha Riyadh, an online platform and creative network for giving presentations. It has a particular style in which 20 slides are shown for only 20 seconds each. PechaKucha (PK) Riyadh has been in operation since 2015 and has organized three events that bring together creatives in the city to meet and collaborate. PK also organises a global series of live events where people can meet, inspire and be inspired by others in their field called PechaKucha Nights (PKN). It was initiated by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham in Tokyo in 2003 and in Riyadh PechaKucha builds on the international idea, taking into account local demands, interests and limitations. 'PK might have started in Japan, but wherever it goes it becomes specific to the context of that place and that is what's happening here in Riyadh. Each design of our poster in PKNs Riyadh took its inspiration from an aspect of Saudi culture. All speakers [at the events] are a part of the society who have been living in the Saudi context,' Bawazir says.
Personalizing the context aids to the appeal of the local population. By directly relating to the local audience there is an increase of viable action. There is both a domestic revolution happening, where Saudis are engaged on a local level and are legitimatizing their experiences by connecting and creating informal creative collectives and projects, while simultaneously providing a window into a world that is usually overlooked. The dominance and widespread use of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms illustrate the degree of engagement cultural institutions have with their audiences, yet the difficulties associated with running creative organizations or events in conservative Saudi Arabia are no less difficult.
There are currently very few national cultural bodies and institutions that address the needs of artists and creatives, and there are also issues with securing venues, generating interest in creative endeavours, and sponsorship opportunities for the art scene. It took Bawazir eight months to secure a venue for the first PKN she organized and, because they had no sponsor, she says she was close to giving up. After finding a venue, she even invested her own personal savings to make PKN a reality.
Measuring engagement is increasingly difficult; the simple approach of measuring visitor attendance is a no longer a thorough enough method. New models of communication engagement and audience-led production have led to innovative collectives and projects. Creative platforms have developed various socio-economic models to serve creatives like designers and artists in Saudi Arabia, as well as to diversify how to measure effective programs and outreach strategies. Workshops, seminars and other education-based events form the core of many of the regional creative platforms dedicated not only to further developing creatives' skills, but also to facilitating their direct participation in the development of a wide range of initiatives in society. 'Constructive engagement with society is one of our founding principles,' says Renata Papsch, general manager at Art Jameel International, a social enterprise organization in Saudi Arabia. 'Arts and culture are not 'elitist' and we want that engagement to be interactive rather than passive, in that people of all ranks participate in our initiatives. Open discussions and critical engagement are part of all our projects,' Papsch says.
Art Jameel International is part of Community Jameel's initiatives. The Saudi-based initiative aims to empower aspiring artists and young entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and abroad through different programs. The initiative was first conceived as a hub to provides the right creative environment and access to resources to help artists and entrepreneurs in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey to grow and make use of their potential, specifically in the creative sector. Art Jameel also collaborates with international organizations and institutions to host events and exhibitions, promote competitions and provide opportunities in Saudi Arabia to further promote and elevate the conversation about creativity.
Collaborative efforts of established institutions with international parties, as well as domestic participants, increases the visibility of creative endeavours and individuals and further solidifies the role of creatives in Saudi Arabia. Increased levels of connectivity and access typically accompany advances in transparency; accessing this new mind-set opens an untapped potential of both consumers and innovators who can use the platforms to facilitate their goals. 'One trend I see is a desire to collaborate with others. It will also be using social media platforms that are an established way of spreading awareness of the cultural scene in Saudi,' says Fiona Fox, independent cultural consultant who helped spearhead the British Council curatorial training program, Contemporary Collective in Saudi Arabia. Social media's potential to enable national institutions to support creative efforts formally is enormous, and frankly, still not being fully realised.
Creative Scene in Saudi Arabia
An emerging scene comprised of incubators, entrepreneurs and institutions that informally support creative entrepreneurship and collectives has established itself in Saudi Arabia. The country still does not have a large-scale centralized program to support national art galleries and museums, yet local creatives have taken advantage of the increased openness that technology, such as the Internet and social media, has provided for building grassroots communities.
The Loft is a multidiscipline design studio based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with services in design, film and photography and it epitomizes the growing trend of creative collectives emerging and creating a niche market. The Loft is one of various initiatives that have created new communities and are helping validate and promote professions in the creative industry as well as providing opportunities for creatives to emerge and seize opportunities. The Loft began out of frustration with the daily grind of the day-jobs of the three co-founders.
'The Loft housed our three disciplines: film, photography and design. We were trying to fill a void in society as when we first started there were fewer opportunities and fewer art communities. We wanted to create a space for ourselves, a space we could belong to and express ourselves in. We also thought of the many other talents who would enjoy collaborating with us or who needed a space like we do,' says Ruba Sidani, co-founder of the Loft.
Contemporary Collective is a programme developed by the British Council in Saudi Arabia, and is a year-long endeavour that gives Saudi females involved in the nation's creative sphere the opportunity to gain practical curating experience through workshops, as well as having access to international experts and participating in an end-of-year international collaborative exhibition. The programme and proposed participant list drew on social media and grassroots initiatives and illustrates the role of organizations in harnessing general interest and trends that are gaining popularity online. 'In the past year it has been stated from the upper echelons of the political system that the arts and heritage sectors should be supported so that they may be able to flourish in Saudi. This fits in with the wider development of a tourism industry and the fact that important influencers are waking up to the potential of promoting a creative economy,' says Fox.
New digital technologies are not only opening up new creative platforms, but they are also benefitting more established institutions. 'In this context, where the will is coming from the top as well as from the grassroots, there is a window of opportunity for exciting projects. This is where independent and international institutions are starting to step in to work in partnership with official bodies. I believe what is required most urgently is professional skills development within Saudi in the creative sector. Contemporary Collectives is addressing this particular need in one aspect that I hope will be developed and built-on by subsequent organizations, projects and individuals,' Fox says.
Alternative technology is not only a strong tool in the country's creative development but is also useful in helping to pave the way towards a more sustainable and durable future by creating new opportunities for creative business. New digital technologies are not only opening up new creative platforms to explore, but are also benefitting incumbent institutions. Digital technology has created a horizontal field of play and an open approach.
As cultures become more open and engaged globally, market opportunities flourish but there are associated difficulties. Artists and other young creatives initially need training and development support to hone their skills and talents, which is then followed through additional exposure through exhibitions and publications, and after those phases outreach phases is initiated. "We want to encourage artistic dialogue with the rest of the world. All three elements come together in the various initiatives we are undertaking to help artists and make the arts scene socially inclusive,' says Papsch.
Creative institutions in Saudi Arabia are also charged with the arduous task of educating the public on the legitimacy of these creative industries and individuals. The intersection of both established institutions and grassroots collectives is helping establish the idea that creativity is a critical component in the development of the country. Coupled with a radically developing workforce, Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads in its socio-economic development. 'I think engaging creative youth as a start up will be the driving force in any political or historical context. Making them play an effective and important role will help in innovation and growth of any organization. They are the builders of tomorrow. Technology is a great tool to create a hyper-connected scene,' says Bawazir.
Creative talent in the region is increasing and with it the promotion of a wide slew of societal changes, including not only appreciation for art and creativity, but also the concept of local marketing and purchasing power. Whereas creatives and their initiatives were once isolated, social media platforms have facilitated connections and exchange. Social media platforms and their role in society is constantly evolving, and their potential for interaction and access is revolutionary mechanisms of exchange. 'Instagram is adding an online store function at some point. Think of how that will revolutionize all our home-grown food businesses. You can see the crazy potential and positive distributions that these companies can have on markets all around the world including Saudi's,' says Yousefi.
Despite the potentiality, there are numerous issues regarding culture and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 'On the one hand, we have intense involvement and encouragement. Having said that there is also a degree of prejudice and resistance. Our nation and society are undergoing profound changes and we have to be cognizant of the dynamics in play, while painting our role as an instrument for positive social development,' says Papsch.
Due to the unique social limitations in Saudi Arabia, niche creative communities have also emerged that take advantage of the freedom of communication afforded by social media. Studio Lucha, based in Riyadh, was launched by Dalia Fatani, an art and design studio that aims to be a unique outlet for female creatives in the capital. The studio was first launched in Fatani's mother's house after her mother passed away. Studio Lucha has now become one of Riyadh's best creative spaces, giving women in the city a rare, private space to gather and create. The space has also become the venue for cultural events, where members of the collective gather for film screenings aimed at generating social and cultural debate.
'Social media has its quirks: the ever changing medium can be a bit challenging at times but it is a great tool with which to operate as a social creative hub as well as giving an idea about the services we provide to build a creative culture amongst the community. The studio instead serves as a home for likeminded individuals and has everything to do with being genuine to a vision of bringing people together in a casual way to help them reach their optimum potential and shed the constant judgments towards oneself, as well as providing them with skills, knowledge and a reason to be here,' says Fatani. Most of the collective's interactions are via social media platforms and, due to societal restrictions, certain precautions have to be set in place; directions to the studio are only provided after an initial vetting by Fatani but the mechanisms for a new way of interacting with the creative community are there.
Although social media has the ability to provide an alternative narrative of the reality in Saudi Arabia, it also presents the potential risk of re-enforcing certain notions and stereotypes the world may have about the country. Creative institutions, and the massive exposure afforded by social media, are also helping in changing the world's perception of Saudi Arabia alongside more traditional diplomatic efforts. 'Undoubtedly stereotypes about Saudi persist in the press and in Western societies. It is also true that at times artists have exploited these stereotypes to tap into a lucrative market – sometimes audiences like their ideas to be confirmed rather than challenged. However, there is no doubt that the arts community can play a key role in providing an alternative means of interrogating the complexities and hugely varied hues of life in Saudi,' says Fox.
Stereotypes are just one of the hurdles that need to be overcome. Individual artists are particularly attuned to the precarious responsibility they have as the full potential of these platforms are explored. 'The relationship between the Saudi creative world and the external world has just started and just like in any other relationship it needs a bit of time to adjust. I'd say some Saudi artist are still stuck in Saudi stereotypes in their work for the sake of looking "cool",' says Zedani. As Saudi society continues to creatively diversify, defining the sector's role will also be a challenge. Institutions will emerge that reflect new needs and demands, as institutions simply represent the needs and demands of society. By gathering supporters and focusing on growing cultural networks, social media platforms will allow cultural practitioners to spread awareness of the cultural scene in Saudi Arabia internationally, as well as strengthen its merit domestically. 'Creative and cultural institutions help a community begin to understand its context, culturally and historically, thus laying the primary foundation for developing a sense of place. These institutions can embrace new futuristic ideas while maintaining past values and traditions, ensuring they create a balance between both,' says Sidani.
Wided Rihana Khadraoui is an Algerian-American writer and founder of creative consultancy firm tazuri, focusing on creative communication development in the cultural sector. She regularly writes on art and politics in the region. She's passionate about projects that enhance and promote Middle Eastern and North African identities, both within the region as well as in the diaspora.
 Sylvia Westall and Angus McDowall, 'Saudi Arabia's rulers adapt message for social media age,' Reuters, 25 May 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-socialmedia-idUSKCN0YF1P0
 Angelina Russo and Jerry Watkins, 'New Literacy, New Audiences: Social Media and Cultural Institutions,' EVA London conference, 22-24 July 2008, http://www.bcs.org/upload/pdf/ewic_eva08_paper26.pdf
 'Saudi Arabia profile - Media,' BBC News, 23 January 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14703480
 Russo and Watkins, op cit.