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Leaders from the National Theatre, Southbank Centre and newly-named Royal Opera and Ballet among those taking part in UK government-backed trade delegation to Saudi Arabia.

A CGI of Jamur marina with waterfront properties
The latest development to be announced in Saudi Arabia is Jaumur, a luxury community on the coast of Gulf of Aqaba


Representatives of arts and culture organisations will visit Saudi Arabia next week as part of a government-backed trade mission to capitalise on opportunities for businesses in the country.

The Great Futures event in Riyadh, organised by the Department for Business and Trade, will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday next week (14 - 15 May). Promotional material says it will feature 750 of the UK and Saudi Arabia’s "most prominent future-shapers and decision makers across a range of industries".

Those speaking at the event include Alex Beard, Chief Executive of Royal Opera and Ballet, Kate Varah, Executive Director of the National Theatre; Elaine Bedell, Chief Executive of the Southbank Centre, as well as Francesca Hegyi, the Chief Executive of the Edinburgh International Festival.


The Great Futures website says Saudi "giga-projects" - a collection of 14 major projects backed with $3 trillion of investment - offer "big opportunities for British businesses".

"The opportunities for British ingenuity, skills, services and products to help develop these vast projects are diverse," the website states.

But the leaders have been told their attendance poses serious ethical questions.

Amnesty International has said migrant workers there continue to be abused and exploited with thousands arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions where they have been tortured and ill-treated.

Meanwhile, claims were made today (9 May) that Saudi authorities have permitted the use of lethal force to clear land for a £400bn futuristic city called The Line.

There are also concerns about the kingdom's record on gay rights. Same-sex sexual activity between men and between women as well as gender expression of trans people are all against the law.

'Lending legitimacy'

Speaking to Middle East Eye, James Lynch, Co-founder of Fair Square, which campaigns for workers' rights in the Gulf, questioned whether the heads of cultural institutions involved in the conference were ignoring their own ethical policies by attending the event.

“As the leaders of the UK’s top cultural institutions gather for a conference that will lend their legitimacy to the Saudi state, that same government is busy imprisoning women who have asked for the most basic of rights.

"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 artwashing exercise.”

Reprieve, which campaigns for abolishing the death penalty, called on participants to withdraw from the Great Futures event to show opposition to the kingdom's continuing use of capital punishment.

"Whilst UK ministers and their Saudi counterparts gather in Riyadh to discuss their Great Futures, three child defendants in Saudi Arabia are at risk of execution and can no longer see a future," said Jeed Basyouni, Reprieve's Head of Death penalty, Middle East and North Africa.

The event website contains a section on 'cultural guidance' for attendees stating that the kingdom has "traditions within [its] culture we encourage you to adhere to".

"Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and Islamic law is strictly enforced," the website states. 

"Respect local traditions, customs, laws and religion so you do not cause offence. There may be serious penalties for doing something that might not be illegal in the UK."

Reputational risk

As organisations funded by Arts Council England (ACE) as part of the National Portfolio, the National Theatre, Southbank Centre and Royal Opera and Ballet are required to consider the risk their activity can have.

According to its Relationship Framework guidance to regularly funded organisations, ACE deems activity that may constitute or influence an increase in reputational risk as including "partnerships with organisations that might be perceived as being in conflict with the purposes of public funding of culture".

They are also expected to "support freedom of expression". 

"We see this as essential for a thriving cultural sector in this country," the guidance states.

An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “It is a matter for organisations to decide which activities they choose to participate in.

"As our Relationship Framework states, we advise organisations to discuss any activity that might pose a reputational risk with their senior leadership and boards, and to make a decision on what action they may take to mitigate that risk." 

Last year government Arts Minister Lord Parkinson visited Saudi Arabia for fresh talks over possible collaboration on arts and culture between the UK and Saudi Arabia.

And in February the Science Museum signed an agreement with the Ministry of Culture for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to create a "museums hub" located in Riyadh.