RIYADH // Saudi Arabia will one day open cinemas and build a world-class opera house, says the man spearheading the kingdom’s entertainment reforms, downplaying opposition by powerful religious authorities to changes they see as sinful.
Cinemas have been banned since the 1970s, after the clerical establishment persuaded the authorities to close them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. And while some concerts have been held this year, clerics still frown upon them.
But the government has promised a shake-up of the cultural scene with a set of “Vision 2030” reforms announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz last year, aimed at creating jobs and opening up the cloistered lifestyle of Saudi citizens.
The changes are also intended to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas by Saudis, who are accustomed to travelling abroad to see shows and visit amusement parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or further afield.
In an interview, Ahmed Al Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said conservatives who criticised the reforms were gradually learning that most Saudis, a majority of whom are under 30, wanted these changes.
His goal was to create entertainment that “will be like 99 per cent of what is going on in London and New York,” although he conceded that change would not come quickly after decades of cultural conservatism.
“I believe we are winning the argument,” he said. A few Saudis were liberal, a few conservative, but “the majority are moderate,” he added. “They travel, they go to cinemas, they go to concerts. I am counting on the middle segment, which is about 80 per cent of the population.” he said. Conservatives, he added, could simply opt to stay at home if they did not care for such entertainment.
Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Al-Sheikh, regards cinemas and concerts as a corrupting influence. Round-the-clock entertainment could open the door to “atheistic or rotten” foreign films and encourage the mixing of the sexes, he said in January.
In large part, the kingdom’s entertainment plans are motivated by economics. With oil prices low, authorities have embarked on an ambitious reform programme to diversify the economy and create whole new sectors to employ young Saudis.
The government has commissioned the Boston Consulting Group to identify venues like parks and theatres for the kingdom to develop through a mix of government funding and private sector investment.
Mr Khatib said the GEA’s activities have created 20,000 jobs so far after only seven months, and can surpass targets set out last year in the Vision 2030 plan. He predicts the share of Saudi spending on entertainment will triple to 8 or 9 per cent by 2030.
The kingdom’s most ambitious leisure project to date is a giant entertainment city outside the capital Riyadh, which would aim to draw regional visitors with resorts, golf courses, car racing tracks and a Six Flags theme park.
“Our start is very encouraging. Every event is sold out,” he said. Comic-Con, a comic book convention held in Jeddah in February attracted 10,000 more people than could be accommodated.
“The demand is massive. And it is normal — the demographic is young in Saudi Arabia and we have a higher disposable income than other countries,” he said.
But Comic-Con also provoked the most public challenge to the entertainment agenda thus far, drawing rebuke from thousands of conservatives — including the imams of prominent mosques — after video emerged of men and women dancing at the event.
Such conservatism was not always typical in Saudi Arabia, said Mr Khatib, but would take time to change after it had been nurtured over the course of several decades.
Cinemas, a particular flashpoint, were not on the agenda in the short term, but would come to Saudi Arabia eventually, he said. “We will get there. We’ll get there. I know how. I don’t know when.”