Strategic Management for the Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia


The history of the Ministry of Culture of Saudi Arabia can be traced back to more than five decades ago. The year 1962 was marked by the foundation of the Ministry of Information that was put in charge of information and media. Fast forward to 2003, the institution was renamed to the Ministry of Culture and Information to culture affairs under the scope of its responsibilities. In 2018, the Kingdom came to the realization that culture was an important aspect on its own. In order to face the challenges of the modern world, there had to be a separate organization for overseeing the country’s cultural activities. Thus, in June, 2018, the culture was separated from the media, which resulted in the emergence of the Ministry of Culture.

Given the ambitious goals set by the Kingdom in its Vision 2030, as a young organization, the Ministry of Culture faces a handful of challenges in the nearest future. Realizing the broader vision of the Kingdom requires strategic management whose critical aspects are outlined in this analytical paper.

The first part (“Strategic Analysis”) summarizes the key facts about the environment in which the Ministry of Culture is functioning at the moment: the Kingdom’s economy, state of cultural development, and role on the international arena. The second part (“Strategy Formulation”) clarifies the mission and vision for the Ministry of Culture, drawing on its current responsibilities and official documents such as Vision 2030. Lastly, the third part (“Strategic Implementation”) describes the key steps that the Ministry of Culture needs to undertake in order to realize its mission.

Strategy Analysis

Setting objectives for strategic management of the Saudi Ministry of Culture is impossible without understanding the current situation in the country and what issues it seeks to resolve through the analyzed organization. In March 2019, the Ministry of Culture (MOC) of Saudi Arabia published a document entitled “Our Cultural Vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” In this document, the MOC stated that culture is an integral part of the long-term national transformation program (The Ministry of Culture, 2019). The program is currently overseen by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Another document, whose importance for Saudi Arabia’s development is hard to underestimate, is Vision 2030. Among many other objectives, Vision 2030 highlights the importance of culture, calling it “indispensable to [the] quality of life (“Vision 2030”, 2017).” Vision 2030 notes that in the next decade, it is one of the Kingdom’s priorities to not only preserve the unique Saudi culture but to also improve the quality and quantity of its cultural activity.

Economic Environment of Saudi Arabia

It is important to understand that the Ministry of Culture has emerged and been assigned such a critical role at the time when the country is at crossroads. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been an oil-based economy whose major activities are strictly controlled by the government. It is estimated that the Kingdom has about 16% of the world’s oil reserves at its disposal. The petroleum sector generates around 87% of budget revenues and makes up 42% of the country’s GDP (“Saudi Arabia vs. United Arab Emirates”, n.d.).

Although the richness of natural resources has brought Saudi Arabia great wealth, now it struggles with youth unemployment and the underdevelopment of the private sector. Previously, the Saudi government attempted to institute new non-oil taxes such as a value added tax. However, their introduction did not improve non-oil GDP, which only proved further the point that the Kingdom needs a deeper transformation. Putting emphasis on culture and promoting cultural activities mean potential improvements in the job market situation and the diversification of the economy on the whole.

It should be noted that cultural development is projected to not only diversify and stabilize the economy but also improve Saudi residents’ quality of life. By 2020, Saudi Arabia had already jumped five places and ranked 27th in the World’s Happiness Index (Al-Awsat, 2020). In the Arab world, the Kingdom comes close second to the United Arab Emirates (Al-Awsat, 2020). In Vision 2030, the Saudi government cites international studies that suggest that culturally active adults are happier than those who do not have many opportunities to enjoy cultural activities (“Vision 2030”, 2017). Research has found that having access to cultural heritage and events lowers stress levels and relieves anxiety in adults. The Saudi government also expects that culture promotion and showcasing the rich cultural aspects of the Kingdom will make Saudi residents more patriotic.

Tourism in Saudi Arabia

One of the most promising sectors that fall under the culture umbrella is tourism. As opposed to its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates that boasts developed tourist infrastructure and a stable inflow of visitors, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is only embarking on its tourism journey. MacLean (2019) reports that in 2018, the government of Saudi Arabia made the official announcement that it would be issuing tourist visas for non-religious travelers for the first time in the history of the country. That decision was part of the realization of Saudi Vision 2030 that put tourism on the country’s agenda (“Vision 2030”, 2017). So far, the statistics on tourism in Saudi Arabia look promising. Between 2013 and 2017, the Kingdom had been increasing its expenses on the tourism sector:

  • 2017 – $14,848,000,000.00 (6.19% of its exports);
  • 2016 – $13,438,000,000.00 (6.69% of its exports);
  • 2015 – $11,183,000,000.00 (5.13% of its exports);
  • 2014 – $9,263,000,000.00 (2.61% of its exports);
  • 2013 – $8,690,000,000.00 (2.24% of its exports) (Macrotrends, 2019).

As Macrotrends (2019) reports, this amount of expenses puts Saudi Arabia among countries with quite a steady inflow of tourists such as Ireland and Sweden. The number of visitors also seems to grow from year to year, though the increase rate has yet to stabilize completely. Statista (2019) calls Saudi Arabia the second biggest tourist destination in the Middle East, after the United Arab Emirates. Between 2017 and 2013, the Kingdom had seen a 26% increase in the number of visitors: from 15.8 to 19 million (Statista, 2019).

Culture of Saudi Arabia

MacLean (2019) expresses optimism about Saudi Arabia’s ability to find its own voice in the world of tourism. While the UAE offers entertainment and resorts, Saudi Arabia plans to focus on cultural tourism. The latter makes a lot of sense: Saudi Arabia houses some of the holiest sights on earth as well as UNESCO heritage objects. According to Arab News (2019), in 2019, Saudi Arabia was elected to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee for the first time in the history of the Kingdom. The official announcement came through just a week after Saudi Arabia’s four-year election to the UN heritage body’s executive board for 2019-2023 (Arab News, 2019).

Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah shared the happy news on his official Twitter account: “After the executive board (election), the Kingdom wins UNESCO’s World Heritage membership for the first time. Thank you to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Crown Prince for their continuous support to the cultural sector (Arab News, 2019).” The Prince added that that decision meant a lot for Saudi Arabia: essentially, it acknowledged the Kingdom’s international status. It was an important moment of recognition amids the country’s attempts to open up its economy and strengthen its global influence. Prince Badr bin Abdullah concluded his announcement by stating that the Kingdom was assigned a critical role in preserving peace and contributing to “the establishment of the principles of culture and science (Arab News, 2019).”

The UN committee that consists of 21 representatives decides on whether a property can be added to the World Heritage List. The committee oversees the state of conversation and requests respective countries to take measures if the heritage objects are poorly managed (Arab News, 2019). Currently, five Saudi Arabia sites are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: Al-Ahsa Oasis, Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madain Saleh) in AlUla, Al-Turaif district in Diriyah, Historic Jeddah, and rock art in the Hail region (Arab News, 2019).

As reported by Rousseau (2019), as part of its Vision 2030 strategy, Saudi Arabia wants to double the number of UNESCO heritage projects. Rousseau writes that in May 2019, Saudi Arabia Culture minister met executives from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The officials discussed the Kingdom’s transformation into a cultural hotspot of the Arab world (Rousseau, 2019). At present, the Ministry of Culture and other relevant organizations continue to work on heritage development projects encompassing such as antiquities, museums, and urban heritage.

It should be noted that the Ministry of Culture is managing an enormous body of cultural objects and organizations that have emerged over the last few centuries. The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (n.d.) provides a brief overview of the diverse and vibrant Saudi culture. According to the source, the main influences of Saudi culture are its Islamic heritage, its historical role as an ancient trade hub, and its Bedouin traditions (The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, n.d.). The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (n.d.) refers to the country’s location as being at the crossroads of the world.

The Arabian people that lived in the area that later became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were culturally enriched by many different civilizations with whom they came into contact through trade or pilgrimage. Today, the country enjoys a rich heritage that includes but is not limited to architecture, calligraphy, painting, fashion, music, poetry, and prose. Because of the Kingdom’s cultural diversity each element of which is equally worth preserving and showcasing, Vision 2030, Saudi Cabinet launched eleven new cultural development authorities. Arab News (2020) report that now, The Minister of Culture, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, will be presiding over the authorities that cover:

  1. literature;
  2. publishing and translation;
  3. fashion; film;
  4. heritage;
  5. architecture and design;
  6. visual arts;
  7. museums;
  8. theater and performing arts;
  9. libraries;
  10. music;
  11. culinary arts.


Strategic analysis would not be comprehensive without the mention of the organization’s possible contenders. The Ministry of Culture is a state-run organization with members of the Royal family overviewing its activities. This implies three things: firstly, the Ministry of Culture does not have to compete on the market as not a single entity in the Kingdom supplies similar services and products. Secondly, while not having to compete is likely to allow the Ministry to retain some of its resources, being the only player in its sector means harnessing the cultural potential of Saudi Arabia single-handedly.

Lastly, minor but nevertheless influential cultural organizations operating in the Kingdom do not have to gain an edge over the Ministry of Culture or vice versa. Some of the Saudi cultural organizations worth mentioning in this regard are the biggest record label in the Arab World, Rotana, and one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world, the King Faisal Foundation (The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, n.d.).

Apart from that, the Kingdom has the King Abdulaziz Public Library, with one of the largest publicly available Arabian cartographic collections and the first women’s library in the country (The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, n.d.). The Ministry of Culture and other cultural organizations can benefit from collaboration and mutual support, which is not only preferred but expected as per the statutes of Vision 2030.

Strategy Formulation

Vision 2030 clearly outlines the mission of the Ministry of Culture that explains its foundation as a separate governmental organ. The document calls the new institution “the engine that powers Saudi Arabia’s cultural transformation (“Vision 2030”, 2017).” It is expected that the Ministry of Culture will provide leadership, develop and reform policies in line with current goals, and revive the cultural ecosystem. The Ministry of Culture cannot and should not set out on its journey alone. Vision 2030 makes it clear that the institution will need to rely on a distributed network of partnerships with government entities.

The new strategy for the Ministry calls for a collaborative approach with other Saudi creatives that Vision 2030 refers to as “the jewel of [Saudi Arabia’s] cultural sphere (“Vision 2030”, 2017).” The Kingdom prides itself with a rich heritage and diverse traditions spanning 13 regions. Numerous talented creators that originate or are based in the Kingdom have already gained international recognition by performing or displaying their work across the globe. It is in the authority of the Ministry of Culture to stimulate the expansion of their artistry.

According to Vision 2030, the Ministry is to promote and showcase the rich, vibrant aspects of Saudi culture – both ancient and modern (“Vision 2030”, 2017). The Ministry is assigned with a critical role to keep Saudi culture an essential part of Saudi residents’ lives. At that, the institution needs to remain respectful of the distinct cultural identity of the Kingdom and treat its objects accordingly. Lastly, the Kingdom expects the Ministry of Culture to connect funding sources such as investors with creative entrepreneurs (The Ministry of Culture, 2019).

Aside from that, the cultural sector will need a comprehensive system of acknowledging achievements on a standardized basis (The Ministry of Culture, 2019). Based on the actual goals, the key three priorities for the Ministry of Culture that need to underpin its strategy are:

  1. the promotion of culture as a way of life;
  2. stimulating economic growth through culture;
  3. the creation of opportunities for global economic growth.

While the aforementioned goals are valuable on their own, they alone cannot constitute a comprehensive valuable strategy. The culture section of Vision 2030 primarily answers what the desired outcome of the Ministry’s activities are. The question arises as to how the institution needs to restructure, transform, and refine itself in order to boost its capacity of pursuing all these goals. It seems that the best possible strategy for the development of the Ministry of Culture should include:

  1. networking and collaboration
    The measures that the Ministry of Culture will have to undertake do not aim at incidental successes and local improvements. As shown in the previous and present sections, the overarching goal is much bigger: it is the full-fledged transformation of Saudi Arabia’s cultural and economic climate. Essentially, the Ministry of Culture needs to create a nourishing environment that promotes culture, which is impossible to do without uniting efforts with other major forces in the sector. The Ministry of Culture cannot know each of the domains overseen by the eleven new authorities. However, some of the cultural organizations such as libraries or music labels are more insightful of the respective domain and can exchange information with the Ministry of Culture.
    It is important to note that the institution’s ties can even extend beyond the country’s borders. The Kingdom may as well benefit from global connections that would nurture its art environment. A prime example is the 2020 project Desert X AlUla that was the result of the fruitful partnership between Desert X, a California-based art biennial, and the Saudi government (Yee, 2020). Previously, Desert X was staging art exhibitions in the Coachella Valley, United States (Yee, 2020). When it decided to collaborate with Saudi Arabia, not only did it attract more American tourists but also reignited Saudi residents’ interest in the desert where AlUla is located.
  2. policies and regulations.
    The major power and leverage of the Ministry of Culture lies in its abilities in introducing actual changes through legislation. Sometimes, malfunctioning, insufficient, or outdated laws stagger the development of the country. For example, when criticizing Saudi Arabia’s plans to boost its tourism sector, Wald (2019) pointed out that the Kingdom did not even have an actual tourism visa yet. It was an obvious discrepancy: a country cannot expect tourists to flood it if it does not take steps to remove bureaucratic hurdles. Later in 2019, the Kingdom finally announced that it was going to issue a tourist visa – an event mentioned in the previous section. With this decision, Saudi Arabia has attracted the attention of travelers and travel agencies, and while it is early to draw any conclusions, the new regulation was definitely a good start. This example demonstrates that a country’s goals need to have solid legal underpinnings. For this reason, the Ministry of Culture needs to focus on working on policies and regulations to make sure that they are aligned with Vision 2030.
  3. art liberalization.
    Vision 2030 acknowledges that the world has already become familiar with many talented Saudi creators. However, the question arises as to how many artists remain unknown and never receive a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make their work public. In 2012, Darwish (2012) provided a piece of criticism of the Saudi art scene. During her Casual Art Talk (CAT) hosted at Jeddah, Darwish (2012) discovered that many up and coming Saudi artists as well as art lovers felt that the art scene was too elitist to their taste. Only a handful of people had a chance to make it in the art world, and their ability to do so often relied not on the merit of their works but on the quality of their connections (Darwish, 2012). Art lovers complained that they were limited in their options: there were not enough venues to visit to quench their desire for artistic enjoyment.
    It appears that despite some improvements since 2012, the Ministry of Culture still needs to shift from exclusively working with established artists to discovering new talent. The positive outcomes of such a decision would be two-fold. Firstly, it will build the Ministry’s reputation among artists: they will know that they have a patron in the face of the organization. Secondly, Saudi residents will enjoy better exposure to art, and culture will become part of their lives, as outlined in Vision 2030.

Strategy Implementation

Aaker’s framework for analyzing organization and strategy implementation requirements
Image 1. Aaker’s framework for analyzing organization and strategy implementation requirements (Nilsen, 2015).

The implementation of the proposed strategy for the Ministry of Culture will be conceptualized through Aaker’s framework for analyzing organization and strategy implementation requirements (see Image 1). The organizational elements such as people, structure, systems, and culture are informed by the overarching strategy that has been outlined in the previous sections (Nilsen, 2015).

Yusuf (2017) writes that regarding people and human resource management, Saudi Arabia is in an interesting position. The country is a monarchy, and when it comes to hiring people for the Ministry of Culture, almost every decision must conform to the royal decrees (Yusuf, 2017). The Ministry of Culture is presided by Badr bin Abdullah, and all the authorities covering the eleven newly founded agencies with the cultural sector are members of the Royal family.

While this structural characteristic informed by the conservatism of Saudi Arabia is not likely to change, human resource practices can. The Ministry of Culture could benefit from hiring people that work in the cultural sector and have relevant experience and insight regarding the hurdles that stagger the development of culture in the Kingdom. Tlaiss and Elamin (2016) refer to a study where HR leaders of Saudi Arabia were surveyed on their talent acquisition and retention practices. Tlaiss and Elamin (2016) discovered that not enough attention was paid to employee selection. To avoid this pitfall, the Ministry of Culture needs to introduce behavioral and structured interviews to improve its hiring practices.

Regarding the cultural aspect of Aaker’s framework, the Ministry of Culture needs to understand what kind of morale among its authority figures and employees would be the most conducive to unlocking Saudi Arabia’s cultural potential. Evidently, the success of the realization of the said potential comes down to what people in charge will make of it. At the moment, the Saudi government is overwhelmed with hope and ambition, which is of course, not completely ungrounded.

However, while the country is at the crossroads, it is crucial not to make one big mistake, which is accelerating the process beyond reasonable and expecting quick results. Forbes’ Wald (2019) provides a somewhat pessimistic but sobering analysis of “Saudi Arabia’s $100 Billion tourism pipe dream.” In her article, Wald (2019) acknowledges the Kingdom’s attempts to wean itself from its dependency on the oil and gas industry. At the same time, she states that the economic shift will not happen overnight.

Wald (2019) refers to a statement made by Prince Mohammed back in 2016. Prince Mohammed said that if by 2020, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not have been able to use its oil resources anymore, it will survive. Now that it is the year 2020, Saudi Arabia still generates the lion’s share of its revenue from oil. That is not to say that in the period between 2016 and 2020, there has not been done much culture-wise.

The facts and numbers provided in the previous section suggest otherwise. The way the situation has unfolded so far only suggests that Vision 2030 does need a lot of time and effort to be realized. Its implementation will not free the Kingdom from its oil dependency at once. Stepwise changes are healthier and more sustainable, which is why the Ministry of Culture should consider budgeting more time for its ambitious goals.

This observation leads to a crucial point about the last but not the least aspect of Aaker’s conceptual framework. Introducing changes carefully requires a well-functioning system in place. The Ministry of Culture, its eleven agencies, and talented creators of the Kingdom need to maintain ongoing communication and exchange of information. This situation calls for upping the ante and introducing big data. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia is no stranger to high technology. In 2019, Arabian Business (2019) called big data analytics the Kingdom’s new oil.

So far, the Saudi telecom operator STC has been helping the Saudi market with its own big data database. STC recently opened its fourth STC RDC data center in Riyadh (Arabian Business, 2019). Providing state-of-the-art infrastructure, these centers are now among the largest in the Arab world. Big data analytics could serve the culture sector well by helping to build a platform for connecting investors and creators as well as monitoring events, programs, and initiatives. Apart from that, big data solutions could help the Ministry of Culture to collect statistics on the progress being made and make forecasts.


At present, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at the crossroads: it has come to realize the need for economic diversification, of which cultural development should take part. Founded as a separate entity two years ago, the Ministry of Culture is assigned a critical role in preserving, promoting, and expanding Saudi culture. The institution is operating in an environment that is characterized by social, political, and economic pressure.

The Ministry is assigned a critical role in diversifying the Saudi Arabia whose dependence on oil proves to be unsustainable in the modern world. On top of that, the Ministry of Culture is expected to work as a medium between the Kingdom and the rest of the world. It needs to show the country as an equal participant of the global dialogue as well as a valid cultural contributor.

Socially, cultural development offers a promise of improving Saudis’ quality of life – a point to be dismissed. The Ministry of Culture has to act with confidence but caution because cultural objects are a source of pride for many Saudis. They cannot and should not be treated with anything less than respect, which should also be made clear in the strategy formulation. Lastly, the Ministry of Culture now presides over eleven different agencies, each of which represents one aspect of Saudi culture. Managing them will not be easy: it will require careful, strategic planning and multitasking.

The formulation of a feasible strategy for the Ministry of Culture finds its underpinnings in Vision 2030. Based on the country’s current needs, the Ministry has to grow and maintain a network of creators and organizations to cover the most important cultural domains such as music, visual arts, literature, and others. Ties and connections do not have to be limited to the Kingdom. The country has already launched successful collaboration projects with other nations, and there is no reason not to continue doing this as part of the cultural revival effort. Aside from that, it is expected that the Ministry will overview policies and regulations in the cultural sector. It also should consider putting effort into liberalizing the art scene and discovering talent outside elitist circles.

The implementation of the strategy will come down to improving the four major components in Aaker’s conceptual framework: people, structure, systems, and culture. The Ministry of Culture could retain its original structure but introduce better hiring practices with an emphasis on employee selection. Culture should promote a slow stepwise changing process that will realize the ambition that the Kingdom expressed in Vision 2030 but not drain resources in an attempt to accelerate transformation. Lastly, the systems in place might benefit from digitalization as it would promote communication and exchange.


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