Saudi Arabia will build a modern art museum in its capital city of Riyadh, joining the fray of Gulf states creating ambitious cultural institutions and destinations. In a statement issued last week, the Diriyah Gate Development Authority and the Saudi Ministry of Culture outlined a bare bones plan for the museum, which will be designed “according to a modern creative concept influenced by the traditional local architectural style.”
No details have been released about who will be designing the museum or what artworks will be featured. Presumably it will not include Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) biggest known art purchase, the decidedly pre-modern painting Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which he bought at Christie’s in 2017 for $450 million.
The Saudi Museum of Modern Art will be located in the Bujairi neighborhood of Riyadh, but the statement also mentions the desire to transform the neighboring town of Diriyah into a “cultural, recreational, and tourism center”—a plan consistent with projects underway in other Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The UAE capital of Abu Dhabi has particularly invested in museums, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening in 2017, the Zayed National Museum well underway, and plans for a branch of the Guggenheim. Qatar has made similar strides, opening the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008, the Qatar National Library in 2017, and the National Museum of Qatar earlier this year. Notably, many new cultural institutions in the region have come with eye-catching designs by big-name architects—I.M. Pei designed the Museum of Islamic Art, Jean Nouvel designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the National Museum of Qatar, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was designed by Frank Gehry.
Saudi Arabia, and its involvement in the art world, has been a topic of intense scrutiny ever since Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. The CIA concluded last year that MBS ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a claim the crown prince has disputed. In the weeks following Khashoggi’s murder, many art institutions reexamined their ties to the Saudi government.
Although the Modern Art Museum may be Saudi Arabia’s first big push into the museum arms race, it is not the country’s only major culture project. The Saudi government is looking to turn the region of Al Ula into a major tourist destination, and has partnered with France to develop it. The Desert X biennial announced an expansion in Al Ula earlier this month, prompting three board members to resign in protest.