August 8, 2019 James M. Dorsey
In Changing Saudi Arabia, Art, Culture and Society in the Kingdom (Lynne Rienner, 2019), Sean Foley offers eye-opening insights into a changing society that is under the international magnifying glass. Using the prism of an exploding arts scene populated by artists, comedians, actors, directors and masters of new media from diverse backgrounds, Foley paints a granular picture of a country that figures prominently in global geopolitics. Breaking with the traditional geopolitical, political and economic paradigm that dominates scholarship and analysis of a kingdom widely viewed as increasingly autocratic and brutal under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Foley illustrates the margins within which the arts scene seeks to stimulate conversations on often taboo subjects and express criticism by couching it in constructive rather than explicitly critical terms. It involves a balancing act in which artists are forced to be critical and supportive of the regime at the same time. In describing the evolution of the arts scene, Foley also paints a much more layered picture of Prince Mohammed whose reputation as a reformer has been sullied by his crackdown on dissent and the killing in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The evolution of a non-traditional arts scene is as much organic as it is a reflection of the generational transition in the kingdom’s absolute monarchical rule and an instinctive understanding that survival in the 21st century rests on a more complex set of factors than it did in the last century. With his well-written and erudite analysis, Foley has made a significant contribution to the literature and understanding of the dynamics that are changing the kingdom for better or for worse.
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James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.