The Gulf is enjoying a cultural renaissance. While some of the region’s countries – particularly the UAE and Qatar – have hosted world-class art galleries, museums and cultural events for decades, its largest, Saudi Arabia, has only recently begun making arts and culture central to a process of national transformation. In Saudi cities, films, plays, concerts and other leisure pursuits were previously more marginal, but now they are becoming a priority. As this trend takes hold, leaders there and across the GCC as a whole have a fresh opportunity to set a global example by making this renaissance meet exacting environmental and social standards. Much of the cultural infrastructure will be new, and it is possible to ensure that it incorporates sustainability.
The environmental aspects of culture are clear. Countries can develop infrastructure – such as museums, art centres and heritage sites – to meet the latest ecological standards. This will limit carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as using water, energy and other resources efficiently. If, for example, all of the cultural assets currently planned for construction in the GCC by 2030 were built in the most sustainable way, it could cut lifetime carbon emissions by at least 1.3 million metric tonnes – equal to taking 320,000 cars off the road for a year.
Similarly, if all of the planned annual cultural events and film productions in the Gulf were carried out in their most sustainable form, it could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 600,000 metric tonnes compared to current practices. That reduction is equivalent to the emissions produced in a year by a city of roughly 130,000 inhabitants. These are conservative estimates that assume a mere 30 per cent emissions reduction. But GCC countries could slash emissions in events and film production by up to 80 per cent – this would be equivalent to emissions produced by a city of 340,000 people annually.
As well as a renewed focus on the environment, this cultural drive can also encourage social inclusion. Cultural activities can promote artists, protect their intellectual property and fund creativity. Simultaneously, cultural initiatives can support heritage restoration, tourism development and the physical regeneration of local communities. Inclusion can come from cultural initiatives that train local people as heritage guides or museum employees. Infrastructure can be constructed using local materials. Social inclusion also means bringing community leaders into important decisions and building consensus about development plans.
This kind of social inclusion can protect heritage so that it can be passed from generation to generation. This heritage can include physical sites or traditions, such as ancient coffee-making techniques, Arabic calligraphy or folk dances like Al Ardah in Saudi Arabia. Many of these traditions and collective memories are at risk because verbal transmission in tight-knit communities is fading. Governments and cultural organisations can preserve this heritage through documentation, recording and research using the latest digital techniques to make it accessible to future generations.
Cultural leaders can do their part by promoting social inclusion by providing offerings in more remote, less populated areas. In many countries, large cultural events take place in cities, something that can leave people living elsewhere left out. Instead, GCC countries can use technology so that people can get the same content wherever they live. That can mean offering web-based replicas of galleries and museums, or providing e-books in digital libraries. Similarly, touring performances and exhibitions that visit more remote locations can help more people enjoy culture.
By adopting exemplary environmental, social and governance standards, cultural leaders can contribute to climate and economic goals, such as net-zero emissions targets. They can assist national development by generating more economic activity, creating jobs, accruing financial benefits and yielding higher returns on investment.
As an example, let’s say sustainable construction methods were used for all cultural assets to be built by 2030: estimates say they could generate net present value of about $14 billion over the lifetime of these assets. In fact, this is a conservative estimate in terms of the volume of construction and the savings each asset could generate. Simultaneously, marrying culture to sustainability could attract important foreign investment.
The best way to carry out these changes is systematically and by using the latest practices. Already, Abu Dhabi’s Department for Culture and Tourism is developing a calculator to estimate the carbon footprint of all the emirate’s hotels. In Saudi Arabia, the Cultural Development Fund has joined forces with the stock exchange, Tadawul, to provide a channel through which Saudi companies can invest in cultural and heritage projects.
That means Tadawul can help businesses improve their verifiable social and environmental commitments, and have more access to international markets through better sustainability performance. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture has started the Culture and Green Future initiative in co-operation with the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation – the purpose being to make culture more sustainable, and to promote its role in helping to achieve net zero.
To support these initiatives, governments should show commitment, provide funding and make organisational changes. Ministries, cultural departments, along with federal and local authorities could adopt a hybrid model that centralises leadership of the sustainability strategy, while working in a decentralised way to reach communities.
The cultural renaissance much of the region is experiencing today offers a unique moment that coincides with ambitious national agendas for economic transformation and achieving net zero. Cultural leaders can put the region’s culture sector and heritage at the forefront of these efforts.
Nay Abi Ramia is a Principal with Strategy& and a member of the firm’s culture and entertainment practice in the Middle East
Dr Yahya Anouti is a Partner with Strategy& and a member of the firm’s Energy, Resources and Sustainability practice in the Middle East