Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

Dancing in Saudi welcomed by many but conservatives are resistant

A week of western entertainment at the recent Formula E race in Riyadh exposed the gap in attitudes between Saudi Arabia's young people and its older generation

Enrique Iglesias performs for fans at the Formula E venue in Riyadh. Sportscode Images
Enrique Iglesias performs for fans at the Formula E venue in Riyadh. Sportscode Images

Saudi men and woman openly danced to a live DJ set last week in a development young people said was long overdue in the kingdom. However, many residents resist the reform and denounced its influence on the country's Islamic morals.

Riyadh is directing government funds towards bringing new pastimes to the country while unearthing its storied past. It chose a staggered approach, packaging change as desirable to all generations, simultaneously familiarising the kingdom with its history while introducing western entertainment.

As part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s National Transformation Programme, Riyadh aims to tap into its youth bulge. Part of that requires investment in their careers, providing opportunities and harnessing their potential.

But now, almost two years into the breakneck reforms, Saudi officials recognise that opening cinemas and holding international concerts to engage young people is almost equally as important.

Last week, Saudi’s approach to change was clear. It hosted the Formula E race – peppered with performances from world-class DJs and other live acts – while opening the doors to Ad Diriyah, the ancestral oasis city of the Al Saud dynasty.

Thousands of Saudi youths made up an unsegregated audience in a country where, just a few years ago, women could only attend university lectures by a male professor through a monitor.

Riyadh is investing in its increasingly ambitious women, who often struggled in the past to pursue professions dominated by men. Underscoring the modernisation plans, the race saw nine female drivers sign up for Formula E’s Saudi test, less than a year after the kingdom lifted its ban on women driving.

“Saudi Arabia is thawing and there is movement of ambition that had existed for decades, I see this as positive change reflecting vision 2030. It’s creating opportunities within the country to discover individuals' talents and welcoming the world here,” said Wafaa Al Rehili, a Saudi government worker.

In the last year, women like Ms Al Rehili were given the opportunity to drive and travel unimpeded by the ultra-conservatism of some members of Saudi Arabia’s society. She says she cannot believe she is “living a normal life in Saudi Arabia”.

The Saudi youth’s excitement goes beyond lifting the ban on cinemas and public concerts. Young Saudis are thrilled about what it represents: a long-awaited break from the permeating jurisdiction of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, known internationally as the religious police but referred to by Saudis simply as “the organisation”.

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Even the development of pre-Islamic Unesco heritage sites, like Nabataean of Al Hijr, was considered by many of the country's conservative clerics as profane or even blasphemous.

Although earmarked for development in the 2000s, it was not until the recent reforms that tour guides began bringing both Saudis and tourists alike to the visit sites of the Arabian Peninsula’s ancient past, or what survived the targeted destruction under the Salafist-guided rule of the last century.

Since assuming his role, Prince Mohammed has opened up the kingdom to forms of western entertainment that Saudi Arabia's conservatives would have once pronounced as sacrilege.

Though he is embroiled in allegations over his involvement in the Jamal Khashoggi murder in Turkey, the Saudi image of Prince Mohammed still holds as a bold reformer. For its young people, their opinion of the crown prince as the harbinger of progress is unthreatened by what they consider loose allegations made by western media.

Many of these young people credit Prince Mohammed for sidelining the religious police, whose power many view as derived from exploiting religious teachings to enforce ultra-conservative cultural norms.

In 2016, the Council of Ministers issued a new law limiting the jurisdiction of the committee, thwarting their control over Saudi life. Their limits, which included all public spaces, have been scaled back.

However, the authority’s influence on the kingdom’s population lingers, making many critical of the rapid developments. Wary of being publicly critical, some of those who oppose the change took to Twitter and posted photos of the religious police’s logo or photos of religious clerics captioned by “may God bring them back”.

Others posted videos of girls dancing in the concerts asking if “this was the new Saudi? Is this religious moderation?”

“The age of development wasn’t based on dancing and decay. Development is in infrastructure, transportation, the creation of jobs and big projects,” said Adel Al Mutiri.

Saudi Arabia suffers from the second-highest unemployment rate in the GCC after Oman. The country has struggled to bring jobs to many of its young residents who have grown increasingly disenfranchised with long waits for government posts.

Others viewed the festivities last weekend as a clash of generations as the country goes through change.

“I don’t think there’s a more difficult time for Saudi Arabia than right now, as three generations clash with their own opinions and views,” said Mailaf Al Mutairi.

Western tourists, a rarity in Saudi Arabia, visited this weekend under a new visa system, as one of the world's most inaccessible countries tries to open up its society and diversify its economy away from oil.

Updated: December 18, 2018 09:03 AM

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