Design, the arts and females leading innovation in the cultural field are not things you might associate with Saudi Arabia.

Enter young entrepreneur Basma Bouzo and interior designer Wadha Rashed.

Basma is the co-founder of Saudi Design Week, an event that seeks to foster local talent and create opportunities for designers. She has brought in Wadha to manage the installation of the event.

But running the fair is fraught with challenges in a kingdom steeped in religious patriarchal traditions.

Witness follows the two young friends as they put on Saudi Design Week and explore how they're opening up the reclusive kingdom through this unexpected field.


By Yaara Bou Melhem 

I thought Riyadh was a cultural desert. It's the capital of a reclusive kingdom that has banned the theatre and cinemas. The "activities" and "entertainment" sections in the Lonely Planet guidebook for Riyadh are blank. Shopping malls and restaurants are the few places where men and women can socialise and mix. But often, these public spaces are segregated or limit interaction between the sexes to immediate relatives.

I was intrigued when I found out that Riyadh hosts a design week where men and women socialise freely. Even more so when I realised it was run by a group of young and ambitious women. A design week run by women is completely ordinary and wouldn't rate a mention if hosted elsewhere. But it's the context that makes it extraordinary.

This is a society where arts and culture are at the bottom of the food chain and where women's freedom of movement is strictly curtailed. Most people will be familiar with the major restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, including the ban on women driving and the male guardianship system which prevents women from obtaining a passport or travelling without consent.

But this is not a film about women's rights. It's not even a film about design. It's a film that challenges the narrative we often hear about women who live and work in Saudi Arabia and offers a different perspective.

Saudi designers Wadha and Basma are breaking down cultural barriers in the artsphere [Al Jazeera]

There were times during filming where I almost forgot that I was in one of the most conservative countries in the world. A cosmopolitan crowd of creatives - some local, some international, but mostly a hybrid mix of the two - would flow in and out during the preparations and the event, which contributed to an atmosphere that belies the conservatism underpinning Saudi society.

But there were other times where I was jarred back to the reality of the tight line these women walk between appeasing conservatives and pursuing their interests freely. It was hard to predict which way people would fall.

But this is a country where in the same week that a prominent prince called for the lifting of a ban on women driving, a woman was threatened and trolled online for appearing in a Riyadh street without the obligatory headscarf and abaya robe, the long cloak all women must wear.

It's wise not to take anything for granted here.

I doubt that anyone could ever get a sense of a place or society in just the two weeks in which this documentary was filmed, let alone a country as complex as Saudi Arabia. But I believe this film gives an insight into a part of Saudi society rarely seen and reveals a narrative about women equally as unheard of. I don't think their story is reflective of wider society in Saudi Arabia. But it is true for a part of Saudi society that the outside world rarely encounters.

Perhaps we may see more of this world. Earlier this year, the country announced an ambitious plan to create a more diversified economy that doesn't depend on oil by 2030. Tourism is part of that plan. And I hope that this means we will see this little oasis of design and creativity continue to be a regular event in Saudi Arabia - and that gets stronger and more influential with each passing year.

Source: Al Jazeera