‘Art-washing’? Unease as British cultural institutions lend lustre to Saudi trade push

<span>Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, being greeted at the Great Futures Anglo-Saudi trade conference this week.</span><span>Photograph: Cabinet Office/Twitter</span>
Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, being greeted at the Great Futures Anglo-Saudi trade conference this week.Photograph: Cabinet Office/Twitter

It was an unusual gig for YolanDa Brown, the saxophonist and composer who this week performed high above the clouds for a UK delegation on a private British Airways plane bound for Saudi Arabia.

The flight was part of a trade offensive for British businesses and institutions in Riyadh, with Brown’s performance part of a new focus for Saudi-UK relations – international arts.

The two-day Great Futures conference, in the Saudi capital, attracted 450 UK business leaders and politicians to its panels, dinners and meetings. Notable in the delegation was a significant contingent of cultural bodies, a move which immediately drew criticism that the Gulf state was “art-washing” – using Britain’s venerable institutions to improve its international image even as concerns over Riyadh’s human rights record continue to mount.

“British businesses have a responsibility to mitigate their risk of contributing to human rights harms, which includes the risk of reputation laundering,” said Joey Shea, a researcher focused on Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch.

For Britain’s smart business elite, a reminder not to wear “tight-fitting” clothing or garments carrying “profane slogans” might not have been entirely necessary. But since representatives of the UK government-funded Great trade campaign sent delegates, the “cultural guidance” (which also carried advice on local laws and alcohol consumption) served as a reminder of the problematic backdrop to the Middle East charm offensive.

The Great campaign was set up in 2011 to encourage trade and tourism and, in 2021, received £60m in funding designed to complement the post-Brexit push for new trade deals. The outcome has been £4.5bn in exports and investment in 13 years, its supporters claim.

Britain’s trading relationship with Saudi is well established – from supplying Lightning and Strikemaster aircraft in the 1960s to the 1985 al-Yamamah guns-for-oil deal, which was embroiled in corruption allegations. The relationship is now broadening into industries ranging from tech to high-profile sporting events. Saudi exports were worth £13.1bn to Britain in 2023.

With the oil money continuing to flow from Saudi’s $700bn Public Investment Fund, British ministers and businesses are keen for a slice of the action, as the regime of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, splurges on ambitious infrastructure projects, including a desert ski resort and a (scaled-back) project to build a 105-mile long “landscraper” city named the Line.

Britain’s establishment is throwing itself into the relationship. The UK’s ambassador to Riyadh, Neil Compton, talked up the “transformational change” he had witnessed in post, in a letter to the visiting delegates. On stage, the British minister for investment, the peer Dominic Johnson, said he had been “grabbing people by the lapels” to champion Saudi after his first trip. There were also industry-specific dinners, including one hosted at the Unesco heritage site at Ad-Dir’iyah.

Beneath this grandeur is a hum of international disquiet around the kingdom’s human rights record, from its death penalty to the fact that homosexuality remains a criminal offence.

Downing Street said the deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, had raised allegations that Saudi forces had been “told to kill”, after claims concerning a man who protested about evictions to make way for the Line and who was shot and killed. The foreign secretary, David Cameron, recently said the UK opposed “child executions” after concerns over apparent abuses in Saudi.

At the conference, speakers represented a hodgepodge of interests, ranging from sport to the construction and automotive industries. The designer Thomas Heatherwick, former footballer Rio Ferdinand, and a clutch of Tory figures, including the party’s former co-chair, Ben Elliot, appeared.

Pointedly, the head coach of the Saudi-backed Newcastle United’s women’s football team was present, as was club director Amanda Staveley. The titans of the FTSE were notably absent, with just HSBC and British Airways attending.

But perhaps most notable were the British cultural institutions that had made the trip: the Southbank Centre, an organisation candid about its desperate need for fresh funds; the National Theatre; and the Royal Opera House.

Under Saudi’s Vision 2030 strategy, 11 dedicated cultural commissions are being set up, including one for theatre and the performing arts, with the aim of building partnerships with existing specialists in each area. In her speech, the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, lauded the opportunities for film financing, new recording studios and the hosting of large concerts and festivals.

In the museum sector, the Louvre’s offshoot in Abu Dhabi has provided a blueprint for western museums opening sites in the Middle East, while last year the Science Museum Group signed an agreement with Saudi to create a “museums hub”– sharing knowledge between international researchers – in Riyadh.

“This expo will generate hundreds of millions if not billions for the UK,” said Jonathan Shalit, the celebrity agent who managed the singer Charlotte Church.

Shalit, whose InterTalent Group counts the singers Pixie Lott and Lulu as clients, chaired a panel that included the head of Virgin Music UK, and argued that the kingdom’s young population (60% of Saudis are under 30) offered a “huge opportunity” for the creative industries. High-profile western artists are increasingly performing in the region; last year’s desert Soundstorm festival featured Bruno Mars, David Guetta and Metallica.

But not everyone is convinced. “The Saudi government uses its near limitless funds to host high-profile events with celebrities, athletes, and now artists and cultural institutions, to whitewash its poor human rights record and deflect efforts to hold its leadership accountable for terrible abuses,” said Shea. “Artists and cultural institutions must speak out about the country’s grave abuses or risk becoming complicit in them.”

Frazer was forced to rebut claims by rights campaigners that the institutions were handing “legitimacy” to the Saudi state.

James Lynch, co-founder of the workers’ rights group FairSquare, told Middle East Eye: “There are serious questions for these cultural leaders, not least whether seeking partnerships with the Saudi crown prince’s gigaprojects really fits with the values their institutions claim to promote, or whether they are participating in a high-level art-washing exercise.”

The kingdom already stands accused of sports-washing, with vast sums spent on acquiring and hosting major event, on the takeover of Newcastle United, and on a successful bid for the 2034 World Cup.

For their part, the UK’s cultural institutions have argued that their presence could help push for societal change.

“Many in the creative industries are not ready to embrace Saudi yet,” said Shalit. “A lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community would not be comfortable coming to Saudi. I understand that. If you’re a touring theatre company reliant on convincing a company of 200 performers to come to Saudi, that may be a problem.”

But, he said, last year’s first onstage kiss in Saudi – between a man and a woman in Phantom of the Opera – had been a significant moment. “I would say to the people who do not want to visit Saudi: you do not change the narrative by not engaging. I get the sense they’re happy to have the conversation – change is afoot.”

Saudi’s youthful demographic could also hold the key in another fertile sector – that of education.

“This country is going places,” said Karan Bilimoria, the former CBI president, who is chancellor of the University of Birmingham, which has 500 Saudi students. “It’s both ways – students coming to the UK, and schools and universities expanding here.” The University of Strathclyde will open in the kingdom this year, with a drive to train women in fields such as engineering and business. For cash-strapped British universities, deep-pocketed students and lucrative overseas tie-ups look appealing.

But what of Saudi’s fossil-fuelled impact on the climate crisis? “I do not want to speak about that,” said Bilimoria. “I’m here with a positive frame of mind to build relations between our countries.”