Saudi Arabia is cultivating a new resource, Entertainment


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 Mohammad 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." - NYT