INTERNATIONAL. Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities was interviewed Wednesday on CNN's 'icon' show about the Roads to Arabia exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.
The Debut programme on 28 July also featured IM Pei and a sneak peak at the newly restored Venus de Milo at the Louvre.
CNN International launched ‘icon’, a new monthly arts series that promises viewers a journey into the worlds of visual arts, architecture, literature, music, photography, dance, opera, fashion and design, accompanied by interviews with their innovators and influencers as diverse as IM Pei, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock.
The new programme will examine how classic cultural icons have influenced new trends and ideas, and will challenge itself and its viewers to identify new icons in the making.
The global remit of the show takes viewers to the Louvre and the Guggenheim, the Tate and the Turner Prize, the Bolshoi and the Met and the Venice Biennale and Fashion Weeks in a fresh, intelligent and accessible way which sees presenter Monita Rajpal stepping into the frame of the designer's studio, going behind the camera and onto the catwalk under the watchful eye of iconic guests and trend-spotters who share their insights and reveal their influences.
Roads of Arabia
For the first time, the ancient past of Saudi Arabia is at the heart of an exhibition at the Louvre museum in Paris, which is showing works that have never left their country before.
Called "Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the exhibition, which opened July 14, comprises works that "have never been seen not just in the West, but for the most part not in Saudi Arabia," Beatrice Andre-Salvani, director of the department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre, told AFP.
The show is the outcome of a 2004 accord between the Louvre and the Saudi commission for tourism and antiquities. It will present around 320 pieces, of which two-thirds predate the birth of Islam in the early seventh century.
Called "Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the exhibition was to have been inaugurated by Saudi Arabia's 86-year-old King Abdallah, but his visit to Paris was postponed. Though no reason was given, the Saudi state news agency SPA said Saturday the visit would be rescheduled.
The first fruit of the collaboration agreement, an exhibition in 2006 of masterpieces of Islamic art from the Louvre presented at the National Museum in Riyadh, was opened by King Abdallah and then French president Jacques Chirac.
For several years, the Saudi royal family has shown a sustained interest in Paris' prestigious museum. The building of new halls devoted to Islamic arts was partly financed by a €17 million (US$21.4 million) donation by Saudi Prince al-Walid ben Talal.
The works, which will be shown until September 27, come mainly from the collections of the National Museum in Riyadh, the Archaeological Museum at the University of King Saud and regional museums.
"They reveal in particular the little-known past of a dazzling, prosperous Arabic world now being gradually discovered by archaeologists," the Louvre website said.
Following is a transcrpit of Prince Salman's interview with Monita Rajpal.
Monita: Your Excellency, thank you very much for sparing some time for us. So this exhibition Roads of Arabia - What do you hope it will achieve for Saudi Arabia?
Prince Sultan: Well it will put Arabia on a different platform, a different perspective for people. Saudi Arabia has always been known for - for sure as the seat of Islam, it's been known for its oil wealth and its economy, it's been known to a very big degree especially lately for its presence - political presence around the world. Its initiative towards dialogue between the regions and so on. But Saudi Arabia has never been known for its history, and I don't mean recent history but I mean the procession of civilizations that have existed in Arabia.
So Saudi Arabia in other words, that you see today, is really the custodian, has inherited an incredible history and basically what we are doing today worldwide, and our position today in the world now, initiatives that King Abdullah - a very energetic and a very diligent King has been pushing these big issues around the world in terms of... Whether its the terror issues, or the world economy, the stabilizing role Saudi Arabia plays in the world economy - a bigger role- is really build upon really thousands of years of civilizations.
So we are basically the custodians of great civilizations and we continue that role. It's not an invented role, it's not a new role, it's a rightful place for us to be and we cherish that role and we welcome it and we want share it with the world.
Monita: Keeping in mind the role that the Kingdom does have right now on the world stage, what do you think this will do either to add or change this image?
Sultan: I think it will add to the image, it will justify, greatly also the Saudi Arabian presence around the world, its.....
Monita: Does it need justification?
Sultan: In a certain degree, yes, sometime we do of course. We need to be coming from somewhere, and we don't just come from deep oil wells and we don't just come from you know, big economy; even our most cherished possession as the custodians of the holy mosque and the land of Islam. Islam in fact in this instance, Islam came to Arabia, especially to Mecca.
Mecca in those days, I actually likened...Mecca in a speech I gave to Oxford about a month ago, as the internet where the word has spread. There was no communication on those days other than people, word of mouth. So Islam came in the crossroads of trade roads that crisscrossed Arabia from the south to north, from east to west, and Mecca was the place where Islam happened and the word of Islam spread from Mecca. So in a word you know, Arabia has always been present in world history as you know. The world economy at a certain point in time was literally run from Arabia.
A lot of the great civilizations emanated from Arabia. Islam, a great religion today, has emanated from that part of the world. So when Islam came to Arabia it didn't come to an empty land or a void. It didn't come on a blank sheet of paper. It came on the shoulders and actually, of great civilizations and that was intentional I believe. Islam is a great religion and it came in a great land and it spread from a great land. So this is what this exhibition is about, to show the depth of the history of that great land.
Monita: I also see that this exhibition is also about trying to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia as well: who are you trying to attract?
Sultan: Actually it is not about promoting tourism, believe it or not. In Saudi Arabia the tourism is fully focused on the internal tourism and of course we have lots of Muslims coming to Saudi Arabia. We have small groups coming to Saudi Arabia, we have gone through an experiment of inviting groups to come to Saudi Arabia. But we are still far from being ready to receive tourism as you perceive it here for instance in France. The system of tourism is still in its infancy. Their system is now being revamped to become to line up with the international standard system - we just launched that last week. Our site readiness is now coming up to speed. Services, human power, the readiness of people to be able to provide those services and to benefit from tourism development and then also in the same time we have great numbers of Saudis traveling abroad, more than four and a half million people a year.
So really, any, any sane person will tell you that the first priority is to go after the local communities, the people of Saudi Arabia who are traveling abroad – good spenders and stable in terms of even security, in terms of you know habits, in terms of.....But having said that, Saudi Arabia has never been a closed country, we have more than...we are really about seven or eight million, maybe more expatriates live in Saudi, Saudi Arabia is literally open every year for millions of pilgrimage, pilgrims who come throughout the year to the Hajj and of course for business tourism. There's a huge number of business people coming through and conferences are growing hugely in Saudi Arabia so we have more than our share to worry about for now than to really think about opening tourism in any bigger way.
Monita: Eventually you will though?
Sultan: Yes eventually we will in the sense of hosting value tourism, you know people that are interested in enjoying the country. There is so much in Saudi Arabia to be proud of. Not...these are not my words. These are the words of a lot of people who have come to Saudi Arabia throughout my life, especially now. I'm a tour guide, I'm a licensed tour guide, and I did that intentionally to encourage Saudi young people to become tour guides.
And I spent some time, much time, and maybe when you come to Saudi Arabia as I invited you now, we have many groups coming to Saudi Arabia and some friends coming from the US, from Europe and other countries, and we tour the country and a lot of them tell me - I think all of them tell me that they never imagined Saudi Arabia to be not just beautiful but the people so hospitable. And the life is going on and the colours and the flavours.....
The exhibition at the Louvre literally gives you another dimension to the heritage of Saudi Arabia and its colours and the depth of its tourism experience eventually. But really this exhibition is not about tourism. It really is it's a cultural event, it's a groundbreaking historic event. I would assume also that many of the Saudis have never seen the pieces in the exhibition and I do invite everyone listening here today to really make a trip, It just absolutely makes it worthwhile.
Monita: Why the Louvre?
Sultan: Well, President Chirac came to visit Saudi Arabia and he...we hosted the Louvre Museum's Islamic collection in our National Museum in Riyadh. And President Chirac at a breakfast I hosted for him in my farm and my palm grove in Saudi - turned to me and said "We must get Saudi antiquities to come to the Louvre."
So he spoke to the King Abdullah at the opening event of the Louvre at the National Museum and the King directed me to do that very quickly and we actually worked very hard to get it done over a very short period of time, less than three years, and it is really a master exhibition. It's a breakthrough, and of course the Louvre had a reputation.
The Louvre is a strategic partner for us, not just exhibiting but also training and restoration and so on. Now this exhibition, the King has directed it moves around the world, so it's going next to Spain, to Barcelona. And Spain has also won the World Cup - that gives it an added value but also it's going to the United States, the rest of Europe and maybe other countries in the Far East.
Monita: With such an eye and a focus on Saudi Arabia through exhibitions like this you would assume then that there would be more of an interest, uh, in the Kingdom, both from a cultural perspective as well
um, just from an image and from a political and economic perspective that's already been there. What do you think then, are the misconceptions about the Kingdom that need to be addressed?
Sultan: Well, of course you know being the land of Islam and Islam’s totality as a religion is under scrutiny…unfortunately some of the perspectives, some of ..the way people look at Islam in such ways have been linked to the activities of some of the extremists you know. Unfortunately it's not just a struggle for Saudi Arabia it's a mission for all Muslims today. But when you come to Saudi Arabia, that whole picture completely changes because the thing that stuns you when you come to Saudi Arabia are the people of Saudi Arabia. They've been hospitable throughout their history so they've never been closed and shunning, you know, foreigners and......
Monita: And women?
Sultan: And women. Women are making great strides in Saudi Arabia today. Women in Saudi Arabia and in the history of the peninsula, the Arabian peninsula have had a great history. Except for a certain period of time, the role of women somehow got mixed up in a direction that is not right for where women should be. If you look at women for us as Muslims also, in Islam, the wife of the Prophet Peace be upon Him, was the first human to embrace Islam and sacrificed her wealth - she was a business woman - and Mohammed Peace be upon Him, was working for her, his wife and never felt anything but pride in his wife and throughout our history in Saudi Arabia, even modern history, our women have always been doing great things and continue to do great things.
So women today in Saudi Arabia are literally making their own way. They are not being given anything, they are taking it with their own right hand or left hand if you are left-handed and making their own way and we are very proud of what they've been doing and I think women of Saudi not only will surprise you but will be making some of the greatest happenings in Saudi future.
Monita: Do you find it a struggle to try and address the concerns of say the outside world outside of the Kingdom, outside of Islam the countries that are not necessarily Islam-oriented? Do you find it a struggle in order to perhaps correct in your mind the misconceptions and in order to do so you have exhibitions like this to actually show that the Kingdom is more than what is politically perceived?
Sultan: Yes. This is....Well this exhibition may do something like that. But Saudi Arabia has been moving in all tracks, in all directions to position itself and to correct the misconceptions. Correcting the misconceptions is not a marketing thing for us, it is really a future thing for us. We are in Saudi Arabia playing a huge role today in the world, a very positive role and this role is in fact becoming even greater as we move into the G20 countries, as we move in to the dialogue of religions, as we move into the resolution the role Saudi Arabia plays in resolving regional issues.
Saudi Arabia today is the cornerstone of political and economic happenings in the Middle East but also a player in the future of this world you know. The planet is very small - I've seen it from space when I was on a space mission about 25 years ago and the world is very small. And we all are becoming a smaller world even now with the advent of blackberries, i-phones and twitters, so people are communicating. So it's not just in the hands of people like me to exhibit, it's now in the hands of younger people. And I've seen this thing evolve and unfold in front of my own eyes in my own house, with my own children who are today basically thumbing themselves to death every day.
And I'm - I'm a user of technology and I use...I don't wanna brand anything but...So I'm a part of what's happening today. So....we need to do a lot more and we have a long way to go but it's not a struggle. We have a lot to show and it's just a matter of showing it.
Monita: What makes you most proud of your home and what angers you the most of your home?
Sultan: I'm proud to be a united Saudi Arabia. If you know Saudi Arabia well enough, Saudi Arabia is a huge country and it's a lot of colours and diverse cultures and certain points in history, and in fact the exhibition shows many of the kingdoms of Arabia,
Monita: And the interconnectedness of it all...
Sultan: And the interconnectedness, but also the kingdoms have existed even in modern Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was divided into smaller parts, literally almost semi-kingdoms if you like; so to bring this country together and to bring people together and to be able to have them make a living, make a life, make a future and make a great country that is now striving towards education and better hospitals in the region and huge....
Saudi Arabia is the largest industrial country in the Middle East. It’s not just economy but to bring people together to talk and to speak and to raise their families, it's a miracle and it makes me very proud to see that happening while in Saudi Arabia we still hold tight to our religion, our values. And our values are of course driven from our religion but of course also driven from our being part of Arabia, our extended history. So you have to be proud of a country that can do this, that sits in the middle of trouble - Saudi Arabia sits in the crossroads of civilizations and trade roots and happenings but also we sit in a very hot area. And to be sitting in that hot area and still manage to develop and to do big things and to defend yourself...
And to be involved and to be engaged also in the world around you is nothing short of a miracle and I'm very proud of that. What concerns me are the things that concern people everywhere. Younger generations, the way they perceive their history, how they want to move into their future; the troubles in the region, that's definitely a concern to all of us. We're seeing endless wars, we're seeing endless hot problems you know around our own country, around Saudi Arabia so these are the concerns but these are part of life in Saudi Arabia; you sit in the middle of everything and you expect to be concerned also.
Monita: So much of the culture, of the cultural identity of Saudi Arabia is the Kingdom, the monarchy in itself. And I ask this question out of deepest respect, but also do you ever see a day that perhaps there won't be a monarchy system in Saudi Arabia that perhaps....do you see a movement of people wanting to have control over their own future and their own destiny?
Sultan:] Well what makes Saudi Arabia unique, really is that the way “the monarchy is structured”. The system of rule in Saudi Arabia is structured in a different way. People like myself come from the family - we call ourselves 'the serving family' that's the proudest thing we can say, brand ourselves not the royal family, because throughout our history and the extended history of our family from the first Saudi nation which started in 1745, it's been always a family that is been leading from the front. It's been in the service of causes and of people and we have never really been a family that is insulated or isolated from the society.
You know we, in my own heritage literally you know almost every family in Saudi Arabia is relatively, is a relative one way or the other. We live in a community, we go to public schools, we work hard, we are judged and measured by how hard we work and how connected we are. And we don't see ourselves as in the sense we are aloof or in the sense of being separated or distinguished. We are part of the community. So we also see the family as an extended family but mostly see also the leadership of the family. As the cornerstone for stability in Saudi Arabia. The King in Saudi Arabia today is a glue. He is not just the person but the position brings people together, keeps people focused, keep the country proud, keeps the country focused towards the big things it has been doing and the bigger things its going to be doing in the future. So we don't think about things in that sense.
Of course we can think about things like that in that sense if this was a family of brutality or it was isolated somewhere and ripping off the country and basically unreachable, unapproachable. Today every prince, most of the executives in the government are required to keep their doors open. My own father, who is a governor of the central region of Saudi Arabia - I saw some statistics some while ago: in one week more than 15000 people approached him in the daily reception. We go out of our way to extend help to people, to solve problems and enjoy life. I enjoy life without security, my passion is to go to people's homes, it's not just wealthy people's homes.
We're not judged....in prayer in Saudi Arabia as you know we stand all together in the same mosque, so that's the thing that also brings people together. There's not such thing as mixing only with the right crowd, everybody in Saudi Arabia to us is the right crowd. And we are a part of that crowd also.
Monita: Well congratulations on your Excellency, thank you very much.
Sultan: Thank you very much, I enjoyed meeting you.
Monita: And you, very much so.
To see a clip from the show, please click here.