Saudi Arabia will host Disney, Marvel and Cirque du Soleil shows in the coming months as it develops the kingdom's entertainment industry to help redirect tourism spending at home and bring foreign visitors to the kingdom.
The country, which will stage about 5000 events this year alone, aims to generate 16.5 billion riyals (Dh16.15bn) in revenues and create 70,000 jobs within the entertainment industry by 2030, Amr Banaja, the recently-appointed chief executive of the General Entertainment Authority, told The National.
It aims to double the consumer spending on fun within the kingdom from current 3 per cent to 6 per cent of household budget in the same period.
“We believe we have a captive audience, a young audience and we have social acceptance now. 2019 will definitely be a year when we can test some of these assumptions,” Mr Banaja said in an interview in Dubai. “So the demand is there, now we want to test the monetisation.”
Saudi Arabia, Opec's biggest crude exporter, is implementing economic and social reforms as it opens up its economy for foreign direct investment. The kingdom has already hosted concerts by Western entertainers such as Nelly and Yanni, announced plans for an opera house, lifted a 30-year ban on cinemas and allowed women to drive earlier this year.
Developing a local entertainment industry aims to redirect the flow of Saudi leisure spending abroad back into the kingdom. The new sector is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic overhaul plan to diversify non-oil revenues, modernise the society and create jobs for young Saudis.
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's largest economy, seeks to attract private sector investment in large-scale entertainment projects such as family entertainment centers in shopping malls and live events ranging from concerts to festivals, Mr Banaja said.
The Public Investment Fund “is going to start some of these investments but there’s a lot going on in the public-private partnership (PPP) space and I’m pretty confident there’s going to be opportunities in these large-scale projects to invite the private sector to co-invest,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is investing in mega-projects including the Qiddiya entertainment city featuring a Six Flags theme-park, AMC cinemas and tourism resorts on the Red Sea coast. The kingdom also announced a draft law to regulate public–private partnerships to attract funding for mega-infrastructure projects.
“There’s a plethora of regional and international investors that are very interested,” Mr Banaja said, declining to reveal the potential deals.
The General Entertainment Authority has set up a fund offering “small loans” to small-and-medium entertainment companies, in coordination with the SMEs authority. It is also training talent to develop a “sustainable” sector, he noted.
The drive for more fun in the kingdom comes amid an easing of gender-segregation laws and wide-ranging social reforms.
“There are religious and cultural norms where we definitely would not cross the line,” Mr Banaja said. “We want to be world-class in what we offer but we want to be culturally and locally sensitive and relevant.”
As part of its economic reform program, Saudi Arabia plans to lift the participation of women in the workforce to 30 per cent from 23 per cent currently and reduce unemployment.
“I think you’re going to see women across in every single area that’s involved in entertainment,” Mr Banaja said.
New fees to hire expats and higher Saudization quotas in certain sectors have led to an increase in the outflow of expats from the kingdom, according to numbers from its statistics authority, but Mr Banaja said he does not expect demand for entertainment offerings to decline.
“Absolutely not, there’s enough demand within Saudi Arabia,” he said. “There’s no softening of demand. Saudis and foreigners that have never had an entertainment sector in Saudi now have something to do.”
Mr Banaja said development of the entertainment sector will focus on seven key areas including themed attractions, shows and performances, culture and art, nature, sightseeing, digital entertainment and sports.
Asked how the sector will compete with established regional competitors, he said the kingdom will create its own brand identity.
“We want to be an entertaining Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We want to be authentic, to have a mix of world-class entertainment events as well as authentic locally created content.”