Can Artists Shape Environmental Policy in the Middle East?

Many of Aziz Jamal’s photos of water parks in Saudi Arabia are beautiful. He captures candy-colored swimming pool tiles and striking patterns of water slides snaking across the sky. But on closer inspection, a darker truth becomes apparent. No one is enjoying these parks because they have all been abandoned. The Saudi artist photographed a series of deserted water parks for “1056%,” a multidisciplinary project which documents Saudi Arabia’s water crisis. The title refers to the fact that Saudi Arabia has used 1056 percent of its total renewable water sources—meaning it is heavily reliant on underground aquifers, which do not replenish. Leisure activities that promote unsustainable water use contributed to this mounting crisis.  

Art is often a disruptive form that seeks to change political and social realities. On April 20, 2023, the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington held a panel discussion exploring the role artists can play in prompting policy change to respond to environmental issues in the Middle East. The panelists argued that artists can build general awareness about climate crises and can play a role in articulating a new vision for the future. They explored the works of visual artists across the region, including painters, photographers, fashion designers, and filmmakers, who have sought to highlight the crisis. Especially in states which restrict civil society activism, art is an increasingly powerful channel to push for change. 

By producing works that shock, artists can change how people think about the environment. Although many people are desensitized to bad news about climate change, art has a unique role to play in expressing how dire the situation is. They can also shed light on less well-known issues. Lama El Hatow, an environmental specialist at the International Finance Corporation with decades of experience focusing on climate issues, said that environmental film festivals in the Middle East have brought her attention to issues she did not even know existed. 

Artists also use storytelling to repackage information in a more engaging way. Much of the scientific work on the effects of climate change is highly technical and inaccessible to the public. When former vice president Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006, it contributed to a sea change in how publics around the world talked about global warming and climate change. Collaborations between scientists and artists in the Middle East can be similarly effective, finding more engaging ways to articulate scientific conclusions about the effects of climate change in the region. 

Artists can also reframe our understanding of the causes of environmental crises. Maya El Khalil, a Beirut-born curator, argued that art challenges how knowledge about the environment is produced and understood. Artists have more leeway than activists to highlight human agency and policy failures in this regard. Even in closed political contexts, artists like Aziz Jamal have found ways to criticize their governments’ water management strategies.  

Art can also articulate a new vision for the future. Dr. Mohammed Mahmoud, director of MEI’s Climate and Water Program, argued that most people in the Middle East are now more aware about the reality of climate change and urged civil society to shift towards the implementation of solutions. Artists’ creativity can help expand the boundaries of what we consider to be possible and practical responses to environmental crises. 

However, the linkages between art and policy change are often indirect and any change it may spur is likely to be incremental. Some forms of art are still considered to be a pastime for the cultural elite and out of touch with people’s daily struggles – they therefore only reach a small audience. More popular forms of art, such as documentaries, often have broader appeal. Policymakers may also disregard the subtleties of art and prefer to engage with those who propose more tangible solutions to policy problems. 

Art has a greater ability to influence policy on environmental issues in contexts with limited public awareness about the climate crisis, where governments afford little space to activists to push for change, and where policymakers are not proposing sufficiently ambitious solutions to the crisis. Many of these conditions exist in the Middle East today. 

And art exhibitions that focus on environmental issues are spreading across even the most politically closed parts of the region. Aziz Jamal’s photos of abandoned water parks were part of the 21,39 Jeddah Arts exhibition, which focused on catalyzing urgent action on the environment in Saudi Arabia, and the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai recently ran an exhibition that encouraged visitors to reconsider their relationship with water. Art will not solve the region’s mounting environmental crises, but in places where citizen action is constrained, art empowers change.  

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program