Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Art and Literature in Saudi Arabia


A sculpture of Arabic calligraphy in Jeddah AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP)

There are art schools in many Saudi schools and universities. Many Saudi artists display their art work in government-funded galleries or privately owned ones, but opportunities for professional development or a career are limited.

Despite increasing openness, Saudi artists still face restrictions on their freedom of expression.

Islamic art seeks to portray the meaning and essence of things, rather than their physical form. Crafts and decorative arts are regarded as having full art status, but painting and sculpture are not. Instead, calligraphy is considered a major art-form, as writing has high status in Islam and is a significant form of decoration for objects and buildings. Books are also a major art form, and geometry and patterns are very important. People of religious significance are not allowed to be portrayed.

Textiles are also important to the Saudi Arabian art scene. Fine, delicate embroidery and elaborately woven textiles have played a major role in traditional Saudi Arabian dress for thousands of years. Women’s clothes are exquisitely embellished with fabulous coins, beads, coral, sequins, metal thread, and brilliantly coloured fabric appliqués.


Abdul Rahman Munif
Abdul Rahman Munif

Poetry remains popular among Saudis today. They gather at cultural events, most notably the Jenadriya National Culture and Heritage Festival, and avidly read the works of established poets that are printed in Saudi Arabia every year. There is also a popular televised poetry competition.

Contemporary Saudi novelists include: Abdul Rahman Munif (whose father was Saudi Arabian, born in Amman, 1933-2004), Yousef al-Mohaimeed, Abdo Khal, Turki al-Hamad (subject of a fatwa and death threats), Ali al-Domaini, Ahmed Abodehman (now writes in French), Rajaa Alem, Abdullah al-Qasemi, and Rajaa al-Sanie, author of best-selling novel Girls of Riyadh.

Rajaa Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace, and Abdo Khal’s Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles, two novelists from Saudi Arabia, have in recent years won the Arabic Booker Prize.

Major publishers in Saudi Arabia include: al-Rushed Publishers and Mars Publishing House. Many Arabic novelists and writers resort to publishers outside the country, especially in Beirut, to publish their book in order to avoid the censorship and banning of their work.