NEOM and The Line: a Saudi blueprint for the global future of urban living


DUBAI: Nujood Al-Otaibi began losing her hearing at around the age of five. In Taif, the area in Saudi Arabia’s Makkah region where she was born, her affliction was initially mistaken for a common fever. But as the years passed, her deafness became progressively worse and, by the time she finished higher education, she was almost entirely dependent on hearing aids.

Al-Otaibi ascribes the lack of public awareness about hearing disabilities in the village from where her mother came to its remote location. “Over the years, I learned how to read lips, which I find is the conversation of the soul,” Al-Otaibi, who turned 32 last year, told Arab News from her home in Jeddah, the city where she was raised and where she now combines her work as a teaching assistant with her passion for art and design.

Living with disability in the Arab world is a challenge for many reasons despite increasing recognition by governments of the rights of persons with disabilities. Social stigma is believed to be one reason why only 2 percent of the Arab population is reported to be living with disability even though the corresponding figure for the world population is 6 percent.

Social stigma, in turn, can leave persons with disabilities disempowered and excluded from public life. Even in Saudi Arabia, where about 7.1 percent of the population have some form of difficulty, according to a survey conducted by the General Authority for Statistics, provision of equal opportunities in education and employment was not standard practice until fairly recently.

Attitudes are changing, however, in part thanks to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan to uphold the rights of persons with disability and empower them to participate in shaping the country’s economic and social future.

It is also changing thanks to the creative renaissance sweeping the Kingdom, which has given social issues such as disability a new medium for public expression. For Al-Otaibi, this climate of artistic freedom has allowed her to open up about her own struggles.


For Nujood Al-Otaibi, this climate of artistic freedom has allowed her to open up about her own struggles. (Supplied)

“It’s really hard in our society. People think you can’t do anything and that is shameful,” she said, referring to the condition in which persons with disabilities often find themselves in.

Unbowed by these attitudes, Al-Otaibi cites the example of Ludwig van Beethoven, the early 19th century German composer who, despite suffering from profound deafness in his later years, remains one of the most admired composers in the history of Western music.

“I don’t want to suffer. I want to be inspired by someone like Beethoven who had hearing disabilities yet was one of the best artists of all time. This is how I want to inspire people — I want to be the best and this is not going to stop me.”

Al-Otaibi’s artistic skills and abilities were nurtured early on. “My father is an artist and I remember seeing him painting from a very young age,” she said.

“My mother said I was three when I started drawing people and she remembered me drawing my aunt’s hair and uncle’s belly. No one knew I would become an artist one day, but my father was the only one who encouraged me to continue painting.”

She soon found inspiration in the hyperrealist movement, a genre of painting and sculpture which, on the surface, resembles a high-resolution photograph, but on closer inspection captures a deeper emotional…

Read More: NEOM and The Line: a Saudi blueprint for the global future of urban living

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