Russian President Vladimir Putin with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud during his visit to Saudi Arabia last month Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock.

Events last month have demonstrated that art and culture play as much of a role in international diplomacy today as when Louis XIV loaded the sultans ambassadors with Boulle clocks and Gobelins tapestries. In the realigning alliances of the Middle East, every instrument is played to help make friends and influence people.

On 14 October, Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia for the first time in 12 years, sweeping into Riyadh with an honour guard of 16 beautiful Arabian horses and bringing with him a Kamchatka falcon and a loan exhibition from the State Russian Museum of 19 Kandinskys, on show in the King Fahd Cultural Centre, until 19 November. Among his entourage was Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum.

King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud announced that the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia had allocated $10bn for joint projects with the Russian Direct Investment Fund; 42 joint co-operation agreements were signed dealing with oil, agriculture, artificial intelligence and railway construction, while arms sales—a potential new area for Russo-Saudi trade—were discussed. Culture was covered by a five-year memorandum regarding exchanges for the performing arts, librarianship, and collaboration with the Hermitage over archaeology and joint expeditions.

These are not the first Kandinskys to go on show in the Kingdom. At the contentious Future Investment Initiative known as the “Davos in the desert”, held between 23 and 25 October 2018, when many business leaders and government officials stayed away because of the murder on 7 October of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, the Russians, including Piotrovsky, were present in force and brought with them five Filonovs and Kandinskys as a teaser for this bigger show.

On that occasion, Piotrovsky told RIA Novosti, the official Russian news agency, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had said to the Russian, Chinese, Japanese and French businessmen present, “Now we know who our best friends are and who are our best enemies.”

Franco-Saudi co-operation[hhmc]

In fact, the French government has shown no compunction about highly visible collaboration with the Saudis, despite international outrage at the murder. Only a day after Turkish officials announced that Khashoggi had been murdered, French President Emmanuel Macron issued a decree officially confirming the Franco-Saudi collaboration on a huge cultural and tourism development in Al-Ula Province. This joint project, estimated to cost $50bn to $100bn, with large consultancy fees going to the French, had been announced the previous April, at the same time as a new intergovernmental agreement on defence contracts between the two countries. (France is the third biggest arms exporter in the world and its sales to Saudi Arabia increased by 50% in 2018, according to a Reuters report in June.)

Working with the Royal Commission of Al-Ula, whose president is MBS, the French agency running the development is called Afalula (Agence Française pour le Développement dAlula), whose “directeur scientifique” is the museum curator Jean-François Charnier, who had the same role at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

An exhibition called AlUla: Wonder of Arabia is now at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris until 19 January 2020, about the natural wonders of this north-west corner of Saudi Arabia, its largely unexplored archaeological history, the impressive Nabataean site of Hegra (known as Madain Saleh), and the oasis town of Al-Ula, which was described by the traveller Ibn Battuta, who stayed there in 1326 on his way to Mecca, as a fine, large village with palm groves, where the pilgrims would rest Read More – Source