It’s a new thing in Saudi Arabia: fun. Citizens must have more of it — at least that is what has been decreed by the regime. Not all citizens, of course, and not any kind of fun. Men can have a lot more fun than women, and none of the stringent bans — against alcohol, gambling or women and men mixing in public — are gone, or likely ever to disappear.
Entertainment may not be the highest priority for citizens in the absolute monarchy. But at a time when the oil price slump has forced a population used to cradle-to-grave benefits to experience the pain of austerity, the government wants to soften the blow with a sprinkling of leisure.
That is part of the rationale behind the creation of an entertainment commission, which launched this year and has been introducing Saudis to the hitherto forbidden pleasure of live concerts. The dreaded religious police, the mutawa’a, have also been told to curb their zeal. So rather than storming private property where they suspect a “devious” deed, as they consider it, they must now report it.
“We want to turn Saudi Arabia into a softer, more pleasant place to live, soften life for citizens,” Khalid al-Falih, the oil minister, said earlier this year. One person involved in promoting entertainment events tells me the government is considering opening cinemas.
More startling still is talk of a Cirque du Soleil show, though it could well end up as a male-only performance. There are more ambitious plans afoot. The Public Investment Fund, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, is planning to develop an entertainment city south of Riyadh, the capital. It is slated to be the size of Las Vegas (but without the tackiness), with a Six Flags theme park and a safari park.
That the Saudi royal family has finally seen value in bringing some enjoyment to a population where most are under the age of 25 is, by Saudi standards, a mini-revolution. It requires a delicate dance with the puritanical Wahhabi religious establishment, which underpins the royal family’s legitimacy and therefore can’t be altogether ignored. But it corrects a social absurdity. While music, cinema and concerts are banned, Saudi families splurge on satellite TV and the kids find escape online — Saudi Arabia has the highest rate of online TV watching in the Middle East. On weekends, many families pack their bags, carry their petrodollars, and go on a spending spree across the border, often in Bahrain or Dubai.
Another objective behind a domestic leisure industry is to capture some of this spend at home. Driving all this is the 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince and favourite son of the king. To transform the Saudi economy, he has slashed subsidies and cut public sector benefits. Developing a leisure sector will, officials say, create jobs and attract foreign investment. It’s also a useful distraction from economic difficulty, and it helps to burnish the prince’s image as a champion of the youth.
So far, four sold-out concerts have been held in Saudi cities, including a packed performance in the Red Sea port of Jeddah from Mohamed Abdo, a Saudi singer loved by Arab audiences. Previously, Saudis had to travel abroad to enjoy a live performance by their own star. Like every piece of progress in Saudi Arabia, though, it was a half-step: Mr Abdo sang to an all-male audience.
A more gender friendly event — Comic-Con, a three-day fest of super-heroes and video gaming — was also held in Jeddah in February. Women were supposed to be segregated from men but they ended up mixing, a few of them dancing, in the same hall. The clerics didn’t like it but they kept their protests largely to Twitter — about the only space where Saudis can express their opinions freely, and where some clerics boast huge followings.
Saudis who have seen neighbouring Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar create leisure sectors from scratch have long argued that a loosening of restrictions at home was less risky than the regime claimed. Officials apparently now agree. Amr al-Madani, the entertainment commission chief, told al-Arabiya television that the goal is to offer at least three weekend entertainment options to Saudis in their hometowns — standard fare in much of the world, but a novelty in the austere kingdom. (Source credit – Financial Times)