Openings Cultural policy Museums Saudi Arabia

The might of oil flows into culture

Saudi Aramco partners with European museums to create a huge arts and natural history centre in the Eastern Province

A spoof Picasso by the Saudi artist Shaweesh. It was made for a YouTube movie by Telfaz11 at the instigation of Aramco about its 2013 Centre Pompidou loan exhibition, but was never shown

In March, at the Art Dubai fair, Saudi Aramco, the hugely powerful oil and natural gas company whose headquarters in Dhahran represent almost a kingdom within the Kingdom, announced further details of a cultural centre under ­construction. The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, named after Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, is to open in late 2015 and, according to Laila Hussain Al-Faddagh, the contemporary Middle Eastern art co-ordinator for Saudi Aramco, it will offer visitors an experience “unlike anything seen before in the Kingdom”.

Over the years, Saudi Aramco has sponsored international art exhibitions including “Roads of Arabia” which first opened in 2011 and is a travelling display of archaeological finds from along the trade routes that once criss-crossed the region, as well as events organised by the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts.

The King Abdulaziz Center has been designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta and will have a library, archive, multimedia theatre, children’s discovery zone, a great hall for international exhibitions and an ambitious museum. This will include four specialised galleries: Funoon (Expressions), showing a selection of contemporary Middle Eastern art; Ajyaal (Generations) to focus on Saudi culture and heritage; Rihlaat (Journeys) looking at the natural and social history of Saudi Arabia; and Knooz (Treasures) concentrating on arts and crafts in the country, both old and modern.

The Rihlaat section will be developed in ­collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London and will display an excavation of the desert beneath the cultural centre, connecting visitors to the geological strata from which the all-important oil has flowed since the 1930s. The other parts of the museum’s programme are being worked on by the British Museum in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This follows on from Saudi Aramco’s support of the inaugural Saudi pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, in 2011, which was an installation by Shadia and Raja Alem. Last year, the company helped to stage a landmark exhibition, Ithra Knowledge Program, in Dhahran with loans from the Centre Pompidou of works by Picasso, Alexander Calder and Yves Klein, which attracted more than 95,000 visitors, ­evidence of a powerful and growing demand for art exhibitions in the Kingdom, at least in the cosmopolitan areas.

The King Abdulaziz Center also aims to ­nurture Saudi artists. “The intention is to be part of the country’s transformation to a ­knowledge-based economy,” says Al Faddagh. “Why not have a place for Saudi artists and would-be artists to express themselves”, one that “will bring together some of the greatest artists of our time?”

As well as supporting current Saudi artists through exhibitions and exchange programmes, there will be work on art education, including programmes designed to change the way art is taught in Saudi schools. Details will be released over the coming months of further partners, both local and international.

A special report on Saudi Arabia appears in full in our May issue. Take out a subscription to The Art Newspaper and gain online access to the issue, including further news and features, or download our app from the App store and Google Play for free

More from The Art Newspaper


Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this