Entertainment & Arts

How cultural verve strives to flow as oil market dries

The King Abdullah Centre Image copyright Snohetta
Image caption The King Abdullah Centre for World Culture in eastern Saudi Arabia

Plummeting oil prices have had an impact on Gulf economies and the repercussions of belt tightening are being felt in the arts world.

But rather than simply signalling the end of big cultural projects in the region, can financial constraints herald the beginning of a new perspective on culture?

Even Saudi Arabia and its high-profile projects have been badly hit. Ambitious architectural plans such as the King Abdullah Centre for World Culture, under construction close to the spot where oil was first produced for commercial export, remain unfinished almost eight years after the first stone was laid.

Owner Saudi Aramco, the state's giant oil company, is considering floating shares on the stock market to raise money with some suggesting that, like other construction projects on hold, the slide in oil prices is affecting completion and also the stocking of the integral museum and galleries.

Designed by Norwegian architects Snohetta, the centre would include the Kingdom's first cinema.

Image copyright Richard Duebel
Image caption Jack Lang, director of the Institute of the Arab World, pins the Order of Arts and Letters on the president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, Sheikha Mai Al Khalifa

Often referred to as the movers and sheikhas of the art world, Gulf women have been developing their own approach to culture, devising initiatives with private companies and seeking sponsorship outside the government. Sheikha Mai Al Khalifa, Director of the Authority for Culture in Bahrain, has protection of heritage in her sights, making restoration a priority.

Such women are often more appreciated abroad where female empowerment is an everyday phenomenon and conservation of significant buildings the norm. The notion of soft, Gulf "girl power" is taking root as budgets are cut ever more deeply.

Image copyright Richard Duebel
Image caption Mural by Adnan Al Ahmad on Muharraq's Unesco-listed pearl route

Fierce cultural competition between Gulf states that led to the likes of the extravagant Saadiyat Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, is gradually being replaced by smaller-scale projects - such as the renovation and preservation of modest, pre-oil architecture.

Once the economic bedrock of the island of Muharraq, the pearl was ousted by the oil economy. Now it is taking centre stage again as a designated route - a road that leads through Muharraq.

The buildings that line it that were associated with the pearling trade and two oyster beds became an important part of cultural tourism.

As well as keeping old skills alive through authentic restoration, the commercial sector is taking note of this model of investment in culture with its potential for profit.

Image copyright Richard Duebel
Image caption Food becomes art in the hands of Bassam Al Alawi, one of the first generation of male Gulf chefs

Expanding the idea of art beyond the confines of the museum or gallery, innovative new ways of broadening the appeal of art are helping to make it accessible to a wider public.

One of the latest trends is cooking, with the arrival of the first celebrity Gulf male chef - but working alongside an artist.

The kitchen in the Gulf is viewed as female-only territory but linking art and food in a novel combination has encouraged a masculine presence. The latest Bahrain Fine Arts Society exhibition paired chefs and artists to create a food and art collaboration, each craft inspiring the other.

This initiative is changing the perception of art, replacing the old idea that museums are mainly vanity projects.

Image copyright Richard Duebel
Image caption Art as resistance by Rasha Yousif

Notorious for the opulence of its feasts - and amount of waste - the Gulf is being challenged to recycle, downscale and become sensitised by Gulf artists on the cutting edge.

While art in the Gulf has previously largely steered clear of tackling pressing social issues, including the phenomenal waste of food in the region, they are now moving centre stage.

The notions of freeganism - such as using up the food thrown out by supermarkets each night - and veganism are still not part of the Gulf mindset, but photographers, such as Rasha Yousif, are posing hard-to-avoid environmental questions to a population unfamiliar even with the idea of recycling.

Could art increase awareness and so change the region's reputation for profligacy?

Related Topics