In any other country it probably wouldn’t even be news: the airing of an old concert by a legendary singer known for her love ballads.
But in Saudi Arabia, Umm Kulthum caused a national stir more than 42 years after her death. As soon as broadcaster Thaqafiya TV announced it planned to show a black-and-white recording of the late Egyptian singer, social media exploded with praise from fans and warnings from conservative detractors that her songs would lead to adultery and other sins.
It exposed again how the government’s efforts to open up one of the strictest countries on the planet remain unsettling for so many people. As well as last week’s announcement on allowing women to drive, which also sparked opposition, Saudis are being encouraged to embrace entertainment.
The latest controversy wasn’t over the singer herself, an icon in most of the Arab world. It was over a government-run channel airing a concert for the first time in more than three decades in a country where senior clerics have deemed music banned under Islamic law. Until recently, a restaurant owner could be rebuked by religious police for playing music.
Some Saudis tweeted religious edicts on why music is sinful. One said recorded concerts should be replaced by Koran readers. Another worried the airing of shows will be followed by orders for women to remove the niqab face cover.
Several, however, wished for more. They wanted Lebanese pop star Haifa Wehbe, known for her suggestive music videos and sexy outfits, to appear on Saudi TV screens.