UK museums warned over dealings with Saudi regime

Former V&A chief says contracts should be reviewed in the wake of Middle East instability

The former director of London's Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) has expressed concern after it emerged that several British national museums are either considering or undertaking paid consultancy work for a new, state-owned Saudi Arabian cultural centre.

Sir Mark Jones said there was a "degree of risk" involved in advising the new King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, due to be completed next year, partly because of political instability in the region.

The new centre will include a theatre, garden, children's museum, library and galleries for Islamic art, modern art and natural history, making it one of the most high-profile cultural offerings in the Middle East.

The new project is financed by Saudi Arabian state-owned oil company, Aramco, whose employees have also sought advice from London's British Museum, Natural History Museum and Harvard University's Peabody Museum over new exhibitions and potential loans from their own collections.

Sir Mark made his comments at a May meeting of V&A trustees where a potential partnership was discussed. He pointed out there was a "degree of risk in engagement with Saudi Arabia".

While the director left his post in September, a source close to him said his worries were generalised and related to political instability in the region and political repercussions of such a high-profile, international collaboration.

A V&A spokeswoman confirmed the museum was still "in discussions" with the centre over advice and loans. The May trustee meeting also highlighted how any fee given to the V&A would be spread over a number of years.

A spokeswoman for London's Natural History Museum confirmed it is getting paid to work "with the team that are developing and designing the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture".

"Our role is focused on the content development for gallery four, a 1,300sq m public exhibition space examining the social, cultural and natural history of Saudi Arabia," continued the spokeswoman. While the centre is officially due to open next year, an Aramco source said it was more likely to be in 2013 because of the project's scale. A new Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi has recently been put on hold because of a review of its contracting process.

Norwegian architect Snohetta, based in Oslo, has designed the new centre.

"The centre's different components will cater to all segments of the society's ages and tastes," said Aramco president Abdallah Jum'ah earlier this year.

Despite the Saudi Arabian government's enthusiasm for international cultural support, it has recently come under fire for failing to protect its own heritage.

Last month, members of the Islamic Research Foundation spoke out against the destruction of heritage sites around Mecca to make way for modern malls and hotels.

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