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RIYADH: The lights dimmed, the conductor emerged and the nearly full house applauded as he stood before the orchestra. Then the lights went up and the cast appeared on stage in historical Arab garb.
“My love, speak to me in a poem,” sang the female lead, opening an opera about racism, war and love. It was remarkable not for the show itself, but for the fact that it was happening at all, on a public stage, in the conservative capital of Saudi Arabia. The recent production of “Antar and Abla” was part of a new, large-scale push by the Saudi government to create — virtually from scratch — a vibrant entertainment sector for its 29 million people.
Saudi Arabia has long been known as one of the world’s most conservative places, where bearded religious police enforced strict social codes and women cloaked their bodies and often covered their faces in public. Concerts and theater were largely banned, and even the notion of fun was often frowned upon as un-Islamic.
Now the kingdom is lightening up with comic book festivals, dance performances, concerts and monster truck rallies. New Age music guru Yanni performed there in December, as did US rapper Nelly (for an all-male audience). Egyptian pop star Tamer Hosny is set to perform this month, although his fans will be barred from dancing and swaying. Cirque du Soleil will make its Saudi debut this year (with less racy outfits than it uses elsewhere). And international companies are signing deals to operate movie theaters across the country.
These are among the changes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intends to showcase when he arrives in the United States this week for a multicity tour aimed at courting US investors. Mohammed, the brash, 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, is seeking to reorient the economy away from oil while making life more enjoyable for Saudis. Officials say entertainment will help on both fronts.
The thinking is that Saudis who spend billions of dollars each year on entertainment abroad will instead stay in the kingdom to have fun, creating much-needed jobs.
The push is also useful politically. Since emerging into the public eye three years ago, Mohammed has rocketed to the top of the Saudi power structure while chipping away at the traditional pillars of society.
He has cut down the religious establishment by stripping the religious police of the power to arrest people and by silencing clerics who oppose his social reforms. He also led a recent purge of princes and prominent businessmen, eliminating potential rivals and angering members of the royal family.
At the same time, Mohammed has courted youth as a new constituency to support his programmes. About two-thirds of Saudis are younger than 30, and many have enthusiastically endorsed the changes.
“I love him,” said Ibtihal Shogair, 25, who was eating miniburgers with a friend at a food fair supported by the government’s entertainment arm on the lawn of a luxury Riyadh hotel. “He came and he was a young man who thought more like us.”
A few years ago, there was little for women their age to do on the weekends, said Shogair and her friend. So they mostly gathered in homes or went to restaurants. When they did go out, the religious police hassled them even though both women dressed modestly and covered their hair.
“They would walk behind you and say: ‘Cover your face, cover your face,'” said her friend, 26-year-old Lina Bulbul.
Now, the women rarely see the bearded enforcers and often check the calendar of the government’s General Entertainment Authority to plan their weekends. They both plan to get their driver’s licenses in June, when the government has promised to lift its long-standing ban on women driving. And they shrugged off complaints from abroad that some of Mohammed’s actions, such as the purge, were rash.
“Before, a prince could do anything — steal, seize properties,” Shogair said. “Afterward, everyone will walk on the straight path.”
Only time will tell how much the entertainment push will create jobs, bolster an economy suffering from low oil prices, and offset the new taxes that have hurt family budgets.
As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia is hugely dependent on oil. It funds the government jobs that employ the majority of working Saudis. But the drop in oil prices since 2014 has sucked cash from the state’s coffers, meaning there are fewer jobs to offer the hundreds of thousands of youths entering the job market every year. Mohammed hopes to compensate by bolstering the private sector in areas like health care, mining and entertainment.
“In opening up the public space, they are allowing more breathing space for young people to gather to interact, both men and women,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “But they are going to have to provide jobs as well.”
Conservative Saudis who see cultural imports such as jazz, cinema and ballet as threats to what they consider the country’s unique Islamic identity have mostly stayed quiet. So the government is pressing ahead, betting that those looking for fun outnumber opponents.
The effort is led by the General Entertainment Authority, which has grown rapidly since its creation in May 2016. It oversaw more than 2,000 events last year, a number it hopes to more than double in 2018, Ahmed al-Khateeb, the authority’s chairman, said at a recent event.
Along with centralising scheduling and facilitating permissions, the authority gives entertainment companies grants in hopes they will become self-sufficient.
But in many ways, the country is starting from scratch. The few movie theaters the kingdom had were shut down as a wave of conservatism spread after 1979. Saudi public schools do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies.
Al-Khateeb said a young Saudi girl interested in ballet would have a hard time finding a teacher and complained that music for a recent event had to be recorded in Lebanon because Saudi studios were inferior.
To fix that problem, Saudi Arabia needs to build an “entire ecosystem” for arts, tourism and entertainment, he said. It has budgeted $64 billion for it over the next decade.
The changes have been a boon for companies that struggled under the old system.
Ameera Al-Taweel, chairwoman of Time Entertainment in Saudi Arabia, said it used to take months to get permits for events and required negotiating with the police and government ministries. That left time for only a few events per year.
Now, the entertainment authority grants permits within a few weeks, and the company’s events have doubled each year, she said. It has 28 events planned for 2018, including Cirque du Soleil, Saudi Fashion Week, a jazz festival and the opera “Antar and Abla”.
Some events have set off a backlash. A video of boys and girls dancing together at a comic book convention in 2016 went viral. But audiences have adjusted.
“Now, when you go to a place and hear music, it is not weird anymore,” Al-Taweel said.
Content is still vetted beforehand and sometimes modified to fit local sensibilities. Al-Taweel said she was surprised when she got approval for “Shadowland,” a dance performance that featured men and women on stage together. Despite the approval, a performer in a short dress had to wear leggings and an image evoking Darwin’s theory of evolution, showing a monkey evolving into a man, was removed.
The new interest in entertainment has also taken the chains off creative types who used to pursue their passions in private and seek out instruction on YouTube.
“It was a completely different ballgame because we couldn’t play in public,” said Raif Bukhari, guitarist for the Saudi jazz fusion band Mizan. He used to perform only in private compounds, at international schools or in the basement of a Harley-Davidson dealership. His band now has gigs most weekends because restaurants, event companies and resorts can suddenly have music. And they performed in London this month during Mohammed’s visit to the United Kingdom.
“Now the opportunities are endless,” he said.