About That Saudi Tsunami That Just Washed Through Hollywood

Authentic culture requires an ability to tolerate opposing opinions, differing perspectives and sometimes uncomfortable points of view. Saudi Arabia does not currently have that in its plans

A restaurant wall in al- Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Getty Images)
A restaurant wall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Getty Images)

The verdict is in about the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia after four days of top-level dinners, lunches, meetings and audiences in Hollywood: He’s smart, he’s charismatic, he’s charming — and we just hope nothing bad happens to him since he lives in a dangerous neighborhood.

On that thought, apparently the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is surrounded by more security than any leader on the planet. A mogul I spoke to this week said: “I’ve met presidents and heads of state for decades, I’ve never seen this kind of security — you couldn’t get near him.”

Those who got to visit the potentate (monarch, dictator, benevolence) at his mansion up on Coldwater Canyon were non-plussed at the phalanxes of bodyguards, armed security, machines and body searches to which esteemed visitors were subjected.

Still, many were impressed at MbS’ vision for a more open and modern Saudi Arabia. “He’s a big believer in the spread of culture around the world,” said one power player who spoke to him for more than an hour. “He talked a lot about culture being brought to Saudi Arabia — with cinemas being opened, and women driving. Some people would define these as small steps, others would define them as bold steps. I would say some of the steps are pretty bold.”

Personally, I have to suppress every urge I have to ask: What took you guys so long? As a country, Saudi Arabia has wasted decades of precious time, billions of dollars and countless human resources in the service of super-luxury consumerism and rigid traditionalism (which most citizens were more than happy to cast off as soon as they were outside the borders of the kingdom).

And also: this big plan to spend $80 billion to build entertainment infrastructure is no panacea. Driving change at lightning speed has its hazards. Trying to buy your country culture is not as easy as writing a check.

Real, authentic culture comes at a cost. Sure, money and bandwidth and determination helps. But by its nature, creating culture takes time. Roots have to be put down. They need to be watered and tended.

Authentic culture requires an ability to tolerate opposing opinions, differing perspectives and sometimes uncomfortable points of view. Saudi Arabia does not currently have that in its plans.

Sure, you can build cineplexes and show “Black Panther.” What other movies will Saudi Arabia be prepared to exhibit? And what movies will Saudi  Arabia be prepared to make? One skeptical mogul who met MbS told me: “He wants to make ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’”

Great. But his young people will probably want to see “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I’ve seen this movie before. A decade ago, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Qatar were racing one another to build massive cultural and entertainment infrastructure. I visited the emirates a few months before launching TheWrap to see for myself: a branch of the Louvre, a Guggenheim, theme parks, universities, artificial islands (one of which was given to then-power couple Brad and Angelina).

When I landed at the Dubai airport and was handed a map, about half of the emirate was listed as “U/C”: under construction.

Then the economic downturn hit in 2008, and many of those planned projects never happened. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have pulled through the worst of the economic downturn, but they are not the cultural crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa that they intended to be.

And let’s not even talk about the women issue. I’ve never visited Saudi Arabia, though I’ve spent time in nearly every other country in the Middle East. Why would I want to visit a country that advertises its disdain for women? For what it’s worth, I didn’t see a single Saudi woman at Wednesday’s Hollywood presentation at the Four Seasons, either on stage or in the working entourage. (Updae: I’m told that there were a couple of women on the later panels.)

Dear Crown Prince: Hollywood and the rest of the world is working toward 50/50 gender equity. Maybe you need to invite Lady Gaga to a big concert.

For me, I can’t ignore the deep cognitive dissonance between the big plans being dreamed by the Saudi crown prince and what it takes to create a society amenable to change, embracing culture at all levels and with arms open to the world (including half its population).