HH Prince Fahad Al Saud Discusses Saudi Arabia's Artistic Renaissance
By Global Art Daily Editorial Board
Interview: Sophie Arni and Ashraf Mohiy
Transcription: Insun Woo
Published on October 6th, 2021
HH Prince Fahad Al Saud has emerged as one of the leading voices of his generation in arts and culture in both Saudi Arabia as well as the wider Arab world. His various engagements, including his forays into entrepreneurship as well as his creation of the cartoon series portraying Latifa, an empowered Arab female superhero, have resonated within the cultural discourse in the Arab world in a profound way. Prince Fahad epitomizes Saudi Arabia’s transition towards a knowledge-based economy with a strong focus on the arts. The fruits of these most recent developments have been particularly apparent through the exponential growth of cultural events and venues, which are now flourishing throughout the country. We interviewed Prince Fahad to learn more about his initiatives and his artworks and to learn more about this exciting moment in Saudi Arabia’s trajectory from one of the leading voices of this generation. Prince Fahad is at once keenly optimistic, but also deeply aware of the areas which require further development, as he is deeply in touch with a pulse of a society that is reverberating with a wave of reform the speed and reach of which has no parallel.
“Being in service to others and bringing a positive impact to one’s community is part of my tradition.”
- HH Prince Fahad Al Saud
GAD: How did your interests in the art world and design world merge with your work in entrepreneurship and technology?
HH Prince Fahad Al Saud: It was organic and it all happened together. Being in service to others and bringing a positive impact to one’s community is part of my tradition. That seed was already planted in me by my parents and the society I grew up in. It bloomed, however, through my experience in the US. I attended Stanford post-9/11 where I was the only Saudi undergraduate in the entire university. As you can imagine, it was a highly confrontational experience. I witnessed the systematic dissemination of misinformation about Arabs and Muslims, or specifically Saudis, since they were particularly scrutinized at the time. For a lot of my friends, I was the first Saudi they had ever interacted with, and they were shocked and confused because I did not fit into their ideas of what it means to be from our part of the world. Soon, I realized that by being present and being authentically myself – authentically Saudi – I could see their conceptions of Arabs shatter and adjust. I realized how important it is for people from our region to have visibility on a global stage.
“For a lot of my friends, I was the first Saudi they had ever interacted with, and they were shocked and confused because I did not fit into their ideas of what it means to be from our part of the world.”
- HH Prince Fahad Al Saud
The first foray into that space was, believe it or not, social media. Stanford was the second private university that got access to Facebook. I was very active on it. As the network grew, more and more of my high school friends started to get on Facebook. Saudis, as a young generation, have always been quick to implement new technologies. At the time that Facebook had just been launched, Arabs and Saudis were already using similar platforms like Small World and High Five. So the migration to Facebook was very easy. After graduation, I got hired at Facebook, where I was in charge of user operations and creating an internal team to service the Arab market. As a result of that, we developed technology for alphabets which are arranged from right to left, as well as for the localization of Arabic dialects. This all started from my task of monitoring Facebook Groups, which was a new feature at the time and was available only in English. I started to discover a series of groups started by Saudi women who were creating private businesses. At the time, Saudi Arabia was much more conservative than it is today, and there were lots of restrictions for women, as business and entrepreneurship was very much a male-dominated sphere. Yet, here, on this new-age technology, were these women, starting businesses—whether it be retail, food, or something else—from their homes.
Prior to this discovery, we had a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg. During his talk on Facebook’s growth strategy, he talked about expanding into different regions. I asked him, “Why not the Middle East? Why is that not on your list of strategic areas?” It didn’t make sense to me because, at the time, there was a global recession, and Saudi Arabia and the Middle East were faring much better than the rest of the world. We were also very active online. When I discovered how Saudi women were utilizing Facebook groups, I presented this information to my superiors. That resulted in Arabic being designated as a main language for the platform.
“The first foray into that space was, believe it or not, social media. Stanford was the second private university that got access to Facebook. I was very active on it. Saudis, as a young generation, have always been quick to implement new technologies.”
This led to the employment of native Arabic speakers and to the creation of an internal Arabic team. This was important because, at the time, I was the only Arab at the company. In addition to increasing the presence of Arabs at Facebook, Saudi women who were using Facebook Groups gained much more autonomy and acquired new sources of income. Since then, the dynamic of culture has changed completely.
For me, that was the moment. I realized that technology and entrepreneurship are more than just ways to gain profit—they are a means to create cultural, social, and societal impact. From then on, I wanted to create positive change in addition to economic prosperity with all of my endeavors.
I also continued taking up digital space. I was resolved to present my life as candidly as possible on social media, which was still unheard of at the time because I understood that if someone can look at me, they can no longer generalize our people. That led me towards merging social media and social impact. On that note, I presented a lecture at the UN specifically about this. I credit Saudi women for these developments. It was their innovation, their entrepreneurship, their utilization of technology to solve a cultural problem that sparked the passion in this space.
GAD: Thank you for sharing these stories with us. You also created the comic book character Latifa, an Arab female superhero. How did that come about? And how important is visual communication to you?
HH Prince FS: Absolutely. I’m a visual communicator and a visual learner, and if you can access my social media, you can see my journey from the beginning. The way Latifa came about was through my life experiences, particularly the multiple companies I worked in. I really wanted to go back and demonstrate that there are a lot of cultural issues in the region that needed to be addressed, especially issues surrounding how the outside world is looking at us. What is a more effective way to be able to pierce and easily enter people’s homes than through animation? It was how I discovered the world. Comic books are how I learned English. Movies, television—I knew what America was before I even got there.
At the time there were a lot of restrictions around [Saudi] women, so I wanted to empower women. Instead of telling them what they need to feel, I just decided to tell a story through visuals and present the idea of a strong female character that young boys and girls can relate to. Think of it as the Wonder Woman formula, or the Captain America formula.
The way in which women from my region were being portrayed by the West did not really accord with my lived experience and the experience of a lot of people I grew up with or that are around my community – regardless of the socioeconomic background and regardless of the conditions of their home life or their community life. Arab women have always been resilient and strong, and I simply wanted them to feel represented and heard.
“Instead of telling them what they need to feel, I just decided to tell a story through visuals and present the idea of a strong female character that young boys and girls can relate to.”
GAD: With Latifa, you created a production company where you hired designers and mentored new generations of motion graphic designers.
HH Prince FS: It’s all connected. The company is called New Arab Media but the abbreviation is na3m. The goal of na3m was to re-engineer the Disney model. Disney has its Imagineers whom it incubates before they graduate. George Lucas was one of them, Steven Speilberg was one of them—so I wanted to create a similar space in the region. I also wanted to be present in areas where there was a high concentration of Arab immigrants, such as Berlin and Copenhagen. I wanted to create value and show these communities that people from these backgrounds, given the right opportunities, can contribute to the world.
With regards to Latifa, her look was specifically inspired by a Saudi singer—her name is Rotana Tarabzouni, a friend of mine, we went to Burning Man together. And I looked at her, and I thought to myself: ‘this is a Saudi woman, at Burning Man, in the desert, in her natural environment, and she is a powerhouse.’
Regarding the design element, it’s about bringing the team together. I think producing something that is fully local is great. And I think that being culturally sensitive while being global is also great. The passion behind creating this project unites amazing people from various walks of life. I wanted the Arab story and the Arab initiative to be a collaborative one. At the core of it, we represent the Arab diaspora around the world. When thinking about creating content, perspectives and life experiences of second and third-generation Arabs are just as important as the ones of a native Saudi.
“I looked at [Rotana Tarabzouni], and I thought to myself: ‘this is a Saudi woman, at Burning Man, in the desert, in her natural environment, and she is a powerhouse.’”
GAD: We would like to zoom out a little bit and have your thoughts about the current cultural climate in Saudi Arabia. We are very curious, and I think our audience is as well, to know about the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a knowledge-based economy from an oil-based economy and the appeal of KSA as an art destination. What role do you think the youth plays in this transformation and what role do you see festivals playing in this transformation? We’re very interested in your thoughts on, for example, the 21, 39 Jeddah Arts festival, Desert X AlUla, and Noor Riyadh.
HH Prince FS: Well, I think one thing that everybody around the world needs to understand is, Saudi Arabia, like a lot of countries in the region, is developing. So, it makes sense that we have our problematic phases, but we need to go through the dark in order to see the light. And this is part of the development process, whether it be societal, infrastructural, or otherwise. The shift into the knowledge-based economy was immediate because Saudis are well-educated. And they’re very entrepreneurial by design. Saudi started from nothing. It was a desert country. Having that heritage as part of our society make-up leads to a very flexible adoption of technology.
We can talk about the natural resources but the human resources here, in the sheer size of the youth population and the level of education is consequential. Young people, pre-social media, did not really have the outlets to be able to express themselves. Social media and digital platforms created the space for a designer to showcase her work and sell to the world when she previously couldn't afford to open in a mall, for example. When Saudi had infrastructural issues, we did not have easy access to art galleries or movie theaters – so digital avenues created a space where art can be shown and videos can be watched. People lived online to create their own creative economy and opportunities for themselves. It’s only natural that after a decade, once the rules were relaxed, the translation from online to physical was immediate.
“The shift into the knowledge-based economy was immediate because Saudis are well-educated. People lived online to create their own creative economy and opportunities for themselves. It’s only natural that after a decade, once the rules were relaxed, the translation from online to physical was immediate.”
It seems like it came out of nowhere but in reality, this artistic renaissance has been cultivated for the last couple of years. That’s why festivals like 21 39 Jeddah Arts, Desert X Al‘Ula, and MDL Beast succeeded one after the next. If you noticed, all they needed was to create the physical space, and the audience immediately appeared. These types of art festivals are just bringing to life what already exists digitally.
When I was younger, art was discouraged. It was religiously seen as a sin. Cameras were illegal in the country—now we have more photographers than ever—so, it is what it is. These festivals are consciously created. They are not built just for fun, or just to be hip. They are consciously created as channels to educate the public about art and to elevate the professions of worthy artists: for genuine artists and who are genuinely trying to say something with their work. If you notice, in all these different festivals, there is an element of education, often through the forms of workshops.
I run my own experiential company, an art and entertainment company. Part of our mission is about creating space for a generation of creatives after us, so they can see an example of such an initiative. The response has just been phenomenal.
“These art festivals are just bringing to life what already exists digitally.”
GAD: You have touched on a very interesting point, especially when we think about digital adoption during the pandemic. We have all gone through a shared experience of living online and interacting with art and culture digitally. For Saudi, this has been a decade in the making. We now see cities globally slowly opening up, with excitement for physical events. It’s a perfect time to look at Saudi right now. We can all learn from the Saudi example.
HH Prince FS: Absolutely. It’s a very interesting time. In a lot of my early interviews, people would ask me “Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why are you trying to create a digital entertainment company?” I said, “I’m preparing the groundwork for our Artistic Renaissance.” People misunderstood it—people believed that the Middle East, and specifically Saudi, was heading towards revolution. But the revolution was not political, it was cultural. And it wasn’t a revolution, it was a Renaissance. As we started to wake up, we wanted to be heard by the world, and we were given tools to allow our voices to be heard. The seed was there, water was poured into it, and now, we are blossoming.
GAD: We would like to ask you a couple of quick questions. First, could you tell us who is on your radar in terms of young talent from the Saudi creative scene? They could be artists, designers, musicians, DJs, curators: anybody who you feel we should all pay attention to.
HH Prince FS: Rotana Tarabzouni. She is a phenomenal Saudi singer based in Los Angeles. For fashion, there are three designers who have had a big impact on me: first, Alaa Balkhy, who started Fyunka. She is one of the first designers to go global, and is now based in New York. Arwa al Banawi, she is simply phenomenal. She has shown at Fashion Forward multiple times. There also is a new designer who is coming up and just got commissioned by Vogue. She is super young, her name is Hayat Osamah, and that leads to the second thing. She was also the Creative Director of a Saudi brand called Too Dark to See Tomorrow. As a fashion leader, Marriam Mossalli is on the top of my list. For film, as actresses and actors, we have Fatima Al Banawi, she is fantastic. She starred in the first Saudi big feature film called Baraka Meets Baraka. She is brilliant. There is also Hisham Fageeh, her co-star, a brilliant actor. And there’s an up-and-coming Saudi director called Meshal Al Jaser. Hisham’s wife, Raneen Bukhari, is a curator to look out for. I also recommend looking at the first female Saudi DJ COSMICAT and comedian and content producer Amy Roko.
GAD: Beautiful. Second, which Saudi cities should be on our radar – other than Jeddah and Riyadh?
HH Prince FS: Abha, Al ‘Ula, and al Taif should be on your radar.
GAD: What do you think is missing from the Saudi art scene?
HH Prince FS: I think that would be true creative freedom. I am not saying that it doesn’t exist. I think it is just too controversial for where we stand right now as a culture. Art serves as a mirror to society and a means to push boundaries. A lot of artists are playing within the lines. Understandably so, because they are not at the stage where they know clearly what is allowed, what is not allowed, how far they can take their art. But they are learning as they go.
I think in order to go forward, it’s about having less judgment, which can only come from more education – a current priority for the country. The government is now giving scholarships to students who wish to study filmmaking, stage design, fashion, and who want to pursue creative enterprises in art schools. Art is becoming more of an academic experience because we must not forget that this region is home to academic people. Through education, the next generation is becoming much more prepared to accept the intricacies and depth of true art.
“I think in order to go forward, it’s about having less judgment, which can only come from more education – a current priority for the country.”
GAD: That is fantastic to hear. We could perhaps end with this question: do you have any future projects you are working on, as we are moving into a post-pandemic world?
HH Prince FS: The pandemic was painful for me as it was for everybody else. It was a moment of rest and quiet, and I had to really evolve as a person. Through that process, I had to deal with what was happening with my work. I was lucky enough that most of my work could be done remotely.
In regards to my comic book, I have been writing a lot during the pandemic, so I have multiple projects with my upcoming comic book series. I like to think of it as multiple shows coming out since each comic is its own series. I have also been working on a feature film and a TV series based on my comics.
I have also been busy building my own distribution and publishing platform for my work, and hopefully for other people’s works. I’m looking at creating a distribution platform for written work, novels, short stories, and comic-book-style content. I’m also building my own regional streaming service to try to do what I said was lacking in regards to the creative space here. Currently, there is no way for artists to have visibility and have their work broadcasted on a mainstream level in a very well-curated manner. This will help with representation. I want to create a platform to present accurately the visual works from people from this region and Arabs of the global diaspora, instead of relying solely on a hodgepodge of selfies and Youtube videos.
My biggest achievement during this pandemic was to start NeoNomad, which is my new experiential consultancy. I realized that because of the restrictions that were happening, there was a surge of new digital festivals. We wanted to create, translate, and highlight artists and brands in a digital forum so they can join this new, permanent space that is the digital world. We have been doing really well with that. I have been working for various Saudi art initiatives, so that has been a rewarding experience.
GAD: Thank you for the interview. We are very inspired by your journey and wonderful projects.
HH Prince FS: I appreciate that. I’m humbled when people say that, but I try to remind them that I was given the tools. My mission has always been to ask myself: how do I exercise this privilege into impact? That intention is really what opened the doors for me. When I studied at Stanford, I was a mechanical engineer. So my background is quite removed from anything I’m currently doing in my professional life. I didn’t look at it as “I should be here.” I said to myself, “there is a reason that I’m here.” I’m being exposed to many different realities, so I can pass it along and down to others and by virtue of that, I am led to amazing experiences that I only have God and the universe to thank for.
Follow HH Prince Fahad Al Saud on Instagram.
HH Prince Fahad Al Saud is an entrepreneur, CEO and pioneer in the Middle East’s creative and technology sectors. He is committed to social change; backing initiatives to empower people and businesses across the Middle East, the USA and Africa. With a determined and entrepreneurial belief in the power of ‘artistic technology’, he has contributed to works and investments in education, job creation and social empowerment. He is also Founder & CEO of NA3M (New Arabic Media). As a notable figure in the world of technology across the Arab region and beyond, Fahad became Facebook’s Head of User Operations‐Arabic in 2008, making a significant contribution to the launch of the website’s Arabic version. He has also consulted on Saudi Arabia’s first ever Start-up Weekend and in 2011 was named “Most Influential International Youth” at the Arab Youth Media Forum. In 2013, Fahad took on the role of mentor at the Unreasonable Institute, as part of the “Unreasonable at Sea” tech entrepreneurship program, sailing from South Africa to Ghana alongside Richard Branson, Desmond Tutu and Founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg.