Creativity in Saudi Arabia: 'This is a time for dreamers'
Posted on 2021 Sep,20  | By Iain Akerman

Creativity is at an all-time high in Saudi Arabia, where the advertising community is successfully tapping into a vibrant artistic community full of hope and ideas

“For me, the best work is happening on the ground, unbranded and never shy,” says Saadi Alkouatli, creative director at Leo Burnett Saudi Arabia. “We are seeing artists, fashion designers, photographers, filmmakers, singers, and YouTubers prolifically creating and hitting different chords for different audiences. This is what Im excited about and can hopefully tap into it before it becomes mainstream.”

   These are exciting times for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. As the country navigates its way through a period of sustained transformation, experimental, innovative and genre-defying expression is at all-time high. “There is a really thriving creative and art scene in Saudi, with young local talent across industries and disciplines producing unique and insightful work,” says Rayyan Aoun, executive creative director for Saudi Arabia at Wunderman Thompson. “This art scene is feeding into advertising and contributing to great work.”

   This newfound expression is most evident in music and film, where everything from the videos of Majed Alesa to the psychedelic beauty of Arabian Aliens Romantic Encounter by Meshal Al Jaser (which featured the model and actress Sayda Word and the singer Tamtam) have revealed a more liberated and innovative aesthetic. It’s also visible in the content of the country’s designers, artists and illustrators, many of whom have built large followings on social media. 


“This is a time for dreamers and doers to do the work and make the best of this big leap in the timeline of the kingdom.”--Saadi Alkouatli, creative director at Leo Burnett Saudi Arabia

   “I believe creativity has become the new form of expression amongst the youth,” says Daniah Al-Aoudah, creative director at @SaudiArabia, a social media initiative that tells the story of Saudi Arabia through the eyes of the country’s young. “Through creativity we are getting to see what Saudi Arabia is about, whether its culture, heritage and future ambitions, from the perspective of the youth who are the leading factor in the change we have been witnessing for the past five years. Today we find the new movement of creativity has encouraged so many Saudis to go and discover their passion and drive and to always go further and not to think of limitations.”

    From an advertising perspective, the most obvious example of recent creative success is The Man Who Couldnt Handle His Handle, which won the entertainment grand prix at this year’s Dubai Lynx. The film also won a silver Lion at Cannes and narrates the story of Chris Rowland, an American citizen who joined Twitter in 2009 using his nickname Saint Chris – or STC.

This led to thousands of STC customers following Rowland in the mistaken belief that he was the Saudi Telecom Company.

“There is an emerging pool of Saudi talent that is hungry and adamant to make a change and push creativity.”-- Rayyan Aoun, executive creative director for Saudi Arabia at Wunderman Thompson

“Chris held on to his username for years with daily mentions from frustrated STC users,” explains Aoun. “We realised there was a lot of humorous interaction and engagement with Chris on Twitter over the years and that we should do something about it. So instead of announcing the news with a traditional post, we created a compelling film that narrated Chriss side of the story, which automatically helped our message go viral. This proves once again that people are hungry for good storytelling, especially insightful ones that are rooted in their culture.”

    STC is one of a handful of brands championing locally relevant content and the talent behind it. In early July it launched Meet Sarha, a campaign centred on a content creating camel called Sarha, while Zain, another telco, was one of the sponsors of Dust, a music video created by Ali Kalthami, Rayyan Abdullah and Abdullah Alhussain. The work that really stands out from Saudi is the entertaining content that is being developed and produced by local talent,” says Aoun. We are seeing great shows, music videos, and short films, whether branded or unbranded. Work that is insightful, relevant, and captivating and that is connecting with the majority of the population.”

   The bulk of this work is being shared on social media, which dominates the media landscape when it comes to creative content. The existence and encouragement of such work is also helping marketers to become bolder and more culturally insightful. This in turn pushes agencies to raise their game and to deliver more refined and more exciting creative. “There is great momentum for Saudi Arabias creative excellence and there are so many opportunities to harness this momentum,” says Alkouatli. “Its important to take clients on this journey as well because it cant be a one-sided conversation.

It is also important to uncover and highlight the talent that is out there creating work for “no recognition or accolades”, believes Alkouatli. “We can feel their contribution on the culture and society but they are not visible to our industry. We need to dig them out and give them more chances to contribute to the master narrative of the culture, and also help brands support their cause and fast forward this raw talent.”

   The situation is far from perfect, of course. Many clients retain a traditional mindset and there are cultural limitations to the full and free expression of thought. Nevertheless, there is a sense that nothing is holding the country’s creatives back apart from the hurdles they themselves create. “Maybe there are limited options when it comes to the institutions and education systems that are necessary to develop artists, but for the past few years agencies have been playing a major role in nurturing all sort of creative talent,” says Aoun.

“Through creativity we are getting to see what Saudi Arabia is about, whether it’s culture, heritage and future ambitions…”-- Daniah Al-Aoudah, creative director at @SaudiArabia

    What would it take for Saudi to become a creative hub like Beirut, Cairo or Dubai? “Nothing really,” replies Aoun. “Its just a matter of time. There is an emerging pool of Saudi talent that is hungry and adamant to make a change and push creativity. After all, Saudis have a rich culture and today they have learned how to use this to their advantage and export it in the best form possible. And weve started to see a lot of Saudi work being recognised internationally. From movies that are making it to international film festivals, or shows going on Netflix, and even when it comes to advertising work, more and more Saudi work is being recognised in regional and international award shows.” 

Alkouatli agrees. “The country is opening up to the world at record speed and the talent is responding quickly to this exciting creative energy,” he says. “I dont believe anything is holding the country back except the hurdles we create. This is a time for dreamers and doers to do the work and make the best of this big leap in the timeline of the kingdom.”