Saudis mingle in new multicultural Riyadh as changing kingdom offers new opportunities

Young people say they can't believe it's the same country they grew up in with the pace of change bringing new experiences every year

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Ghada Mohammed still can't quite believe she drove her mother and sister across the Saudi capital to Boulevard World for an evening of global food and mingling with people from all over the world.

"I never thought I would be driving in my country," she says, recalling the time before the ban on women driving was lifted in 2018. "I feel the sense of pride my mother has seeing me drive and being independent, but I feel sorry for her that she never had the chance."

While the change felt like a landmark moment in Saudi Arabia, fewer than five years later and many Saudis say their country is unrecognisable in so many ways.

"I can't believe this is the same Saudi Arabia I was born in and lived in my entire life," says Haneen Al Shammri.

Only a handful of years ago, there were few large public cultural events, few tourists other than pilgrims undertaking Hajj or Umrah and even fewer outlets for Saudis to mix in public, meet and have fun.

The ongoing Riyadh Season and events such as Boulevard World offer a stark reminder of the change taking place in the kingdom.

Riyadh Season is a vast, state-organised festival of entertainment and sport in the capital between October and March that brought in more than 10 million visitors in its first year alone in 2020.

Boulevard World in the capital's Hittin neighbourhood is only one of the pop-up events taking place in attempt to bring the world to Saudi Arabia. It features a recreation of New York's Time Square, London's Coventry Street, neon Tokyo-inspired districts, Venetian canals and a mini-Taj Mahal.

Riyadh's Boulevard World has the largest artificial lake in the world (which includes a "submarine experience") and is the venue for dozens of local and international events from Cirque du Soleil and WWE tournaments to Paris Saint-Germain exhibition football matches against Saudi sides Al Hilal and megastar Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr.

Ghada says Boulevard World was the first place she'd experienced so many different cultures and cuisines in the various districts of the site.

"Mostly we enjoyed the Indian food and my favourite city was Italy. Japan was amazing — my sisters love anime and we cannot wait to come back again," she says.

Haneen said the site highlighted the new cosmopolitan Saudi Arabia that has started to emerge since the country sought to attract new wealthier expatriates and launched e-visas for tourists for the first time in 2019 as part of a push for 100 million visitors a year by 2030.

"Today I am visiting the event with my work colleagues who are from different countries choosing to live in Riyadh ― the future of the world, as we say ― and I get to witness different cultures with them here at one of the best large-scale events in the world in my hometown, it's crazy," she says.

Aman Hayat, an Indian citizen in Riyadh, says events such as Riyadh Season and Boulevard World have changed the way of life in the Saudi capital and introduced expatriates to more Saudis because before "there were close to no events where locals and ex-pats could engage".

"Such events really open your eyes up to different worlds," she explains. "The Indian pavilion attracted so many Saudis who were moving along to our song and dance performances at the main stage, it was really nice to see that.

"You have to have more events of this quality to really tell the stories of our countries, Riyadh did an outstanding job. Even the food here is authentic," says Aman.

Updated: March 17, 2023, 6:00 PM