Janadriyah heritage festival celebrates symbols of Saudi identity

The jamboree lasts for two weeks and is expected to draw up to 1 million visitors from Saudi Arabia and abroad.

Note: This article is from the Guardian.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Janadriyah heritage festival celebrates symbols of Saudi identity” was written by Ian Black, Middle East editor, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 4th April 2013 13.57 UTC

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, 90 and ailing, still makes public appearances these days, and he is both host and patron of this year’s celebration of tribal folklore – a showcase for the traditions the Al Saud and supporters hold dear.

The annual Janadriyah national heritage and culture festival, named for the village near Riyadh where it is held, showcases camel and horse-racing spectaculars, sword dancing, poetry and music as well as crafts such as carpet-weaving, pottery, regional costumes and cuisine.

Promoted with fanfare in the official media, and broadcast live on TV, the main Janadriyah jamboree formally got under way on Thursday. It lasts for two weeks and is expected to draw up to 1 million visitors from Saudi Arabia and abroad.

Its purpose, the organisers say, is “to enforce a sense of religious, national and social unity” – a timely message given the undercurrents of unrest and nervousness in the kingdom. Recent months have seen protests in the Shia eastern province, the imprisonment of human rights activists and an ominous call to register Twitter users – all against a background of speculation about the health of ageing royals. On Tuesday, the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the king’s nephew, dropped a bombshell by calling for elections.

The festival started, as always, with a grand camel race with 900 contestants. In all 1,200 participants will compete across six events for cash prizes worth £180,000 and 10 cars – presumably in case the camels conk out. Betting is forbidden as gambling is illegal under sharia law.

Women and children are encouraged to visit – on days when single men are banned – and there are camel and donkey rides and farm animals for kids to pet, as well as silly hats, toys and henna tattoos. “It is very popular,” says the Saudi journalist Abeer Mishkhas. “It’s something that the whole family can enjoy and it has a patriotic appeal as well.” Entry is free.

Two years ago a female expat complained about the proliferation of fast-food stalls and noted that the only traditional feature was gender-segregated queues. But she praised the relaxed atmosphere: “Everyone was genuinely welcomed and shown respect,” wrote Laylah. “No leering, flirting or passing of mobile numbers anywhere.” Reinforcements of the morality police will be on hand to ensure that social proprieties are observed.

For some the festival is an example of what has been called the “invention of tradition”. The artefacts – tent, camel, coffee pot and sword – are genuine enough. But the event was only launched in 1985 – leading experts to talk of the “fetishisation” of tribal culture. Others reflect on a harmless nostalgia for simpler, more egalitarian times before the oil boom transformed the desert and the dynasty that has ruled the kingdom for 80 years.

Significantly, it is run by the powerful National Guard, the Bedouin backbone of the regime, which was commanded by the present king for three decades and now by his son, Prince Mutaib. “This cultural fair is a realisation of our nation’s identity … to feature our values and heritage with a mission to make it known to one and all,” said Abdul Mohsen al-Tuwaijri, the assistant deputy commander.

“The Janadriyah is an opportunity to do something Saudi,” argues the independent scholar Mai Yamani. “The country is facing a lot of unrest – not demonstrations – but a new situation because of what is going on in the region, the Arab spring and Syria. It is a chance to return to the symbols of national identity – Islam and chivalry and old values.”

The most popular fixture is said to be the famous ardha dance – all whirling swords and beating drums, and much loved by the king. It emphasises the unity of the kingdom as well as its roles of “strength and leadership”.

Neighbouring Gulf states are represented, with delegations from the United Arab Emirates – sending a ballooning team – as well as Qatar and Bahrain. Leading foreign companies, including BAE Systems, the UK defence manufacturer, are also attending, along with VIPs, diplomats and 300 invited intellectuals, thinkers and poets.

But changing international priorities and hard-nosed economic calculations are reflected in the choice of this year’s “guest of honour” – China, which has its own 2,000-sq-metre pavilion at the festival. China is now Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and the third largest export market for its crude oil. Hopes are that the legendary action superstar Jackie Chan will be on hand to help draw the crowds.

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