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ABU DHABI: Two women leading the conversation on culture in Saudi Arabia took to the stage on two separate panels at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi on Monday to talk about their respective institutions.

Aya Al-Bakree, the CEO at Diriyah Biennale Foundation, and Nada Alhelabi, the strategy and XP Music Futures director at MDLBEAST, were both in the spotlight at the event.

Al-Bakree was speaking as part of the panel “Cultural Leadership in Our Complex World.” She was joined by Francesca Colombo, managing and cultural director at Biblioteca degli Alberi Milano; DooEun Choi, vice president of Artlab at Hyundai Motor Company; and Justine Simons, deputy mayor for culture and creative industries in London.

Al-Bakree said: “The purpose of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation is to craft perspectives. It does that by staging … the Contemporary Art Biennale at Jax District and the Islamic Arts Biennale, which takes place at Jeddah Airport. This is a very special location, an Aga Khan Award-winning location, because it used to be the Hajj terminal, used by the Hajj travelers, which we basically repurposed to have art programs. And we are also developing a creative district called Jax.

“The foundation is meant to support artists full circle. I’m happy to say that the success is very much there because the art was always there. The creation of the Diriyah Foundation is a culmination rather than an overhaul. It just created a framework and an ecosystem for everything to shine.”

Al-Bakree spoke of the inaugural edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale in 2023 attracting more than 600,000 visitors, adding: “That’s a large number of people for such a young event.”

Alhelabi spoke at a later panel called “The Time to Pursue a Career in the MENA Music Industry.”

Moderated by Mayssa Karaa, a singer-songwriter and artistic director at Berklee Abu Dhabi, the panel also featured Karima Damir, A&R director for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region at Warner Music Group.

Alhelabi said: “We are at the right time for creatives. We have a lot of opportunities.

“For us at XP, collaboration is key. And passion. For all of us in Saudi, we did not have any music education. I remember I was 7 years old and wanted to learn the piano, but there were no stores and there was no one teaching piano at the time. And look at us now.

“So, the key point is definitely passion. And if someone is starting to get into the music industry, every skill and every experience you had in your life matters.”

She stressed that there are many avenues within the music industry to explore. She also pointed to XP Music Futures’ two-week Artist Management Bootcamp as an example of the kind of exposure that individuals in the region are being exposed to when it comes to new careers in the field of music and entertainment.

She added: “Whether you want to work on your own brand and design the events; whether you want to work in production, or you want to do programming, or even artist booking, there are so many fields in the music industry you can contribute to.

“In addition to working as artists, the artists themselves need a village, a surrounding team, for them to be successful.”

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