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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 February 2019

Saudi Arabia announces massive entertainment programme

The performances range from Quran recitals to the videogame competitions

FILE PHOTO: Saudi people are seen at Riyadh Park mall during the opening of a cinema, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters
FILE PHOTO: Saudi people are seen at Riyadh Park mall during the opening of a cinema, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters

Saudi Arabia has announced a massive schedule of arts and performance events, as part of reforms to diversify the economy and satisfy growing appetites for public entertainment.

The list of performances spread across the entertainment field – from Japan's Takeshi’s Castle and Crystal Maze to NBA basketball games and The Lion King musical – marks a shift away from the country’s former reluctance to allow foreign entertainment in the Kingdom.

With Saudi's tourism authority bestowed with a budget of $65 billion (Dh238 billion) to spend over the next decade, authorities may be banking that citizens will be more focused on plans to unveil a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Marvel shows. International entities meanwhile have shown interest in gaining access to a large youth market with an appetite for western entertainment and disposable income.

Turki Al Al Shikh, the newly appointed chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, said the Kingdom will seek to land big theatrical productions like The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King, as well as regional and international circuses in the coming year.

“Our doors are open,” Mr Al Al Shikh announced in a Twitter storm that outlined a wide range of events in 2019, which also include performances by David Beckham and Trevor Noah.

As part of Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Programme, Riyadh aims to offer its huge youth population new employment options in different fields. The events are expected to spur the economy and employ Saudis in event planning, the arts and other pursuits.

The Kingdom wants to host more competitions, exhibitions, bazaars, stand-up comedy and themed attractions, Mr Al Shikh said, adding that investment in the sector could create tens of thousands “if not hundreds” of thousands of jobs.

There will also be a push for local and regional entertainment. Legendary Saudi musician, Mohammed Abdu and Egyptian pop star Amru Diab are also on the ticket.

The government announced it will provide smaller venues to allow license-holders to host their own events, in a move aimed at supporting a home-grown, independent arts scene.

Riyadh is pursuing a balanced approached to its entertainment line-up by also catering to the country’s more conservative side. Ramadan season will see millions of riyal going towards Quran recital competitions and a unique event challenging participants on a walkathon emulating the prophets pilgrimage to Makkah.

But most attention remains focused on the international events, including some oddities including a monster truck rally, a Spanish style bull run and hologram performances by dead musicians.

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Saudis have praised the wide array of planned events.

"The announcement has various activities for all age groups and in a number of different areas," Mohammed Al Brahim, a Saudi football analyst, said on Twitter.

Other residents met the news with skepticism.

“They need to keep the prices down,” said Nouf Khalid, a Saudi woman working in Bahrain. “However, I think they will manage as in the past when they received feedback that prices were too high they have lowered them significantly”.

Many Saudis cannot afford the ticket price for such events, she said, adding that affordable entertainment should also be on organisers' agenda.

Previous events, like the Formula E race in Riyadh in December, saw a series of concerts by international acts including Enrique Iglesias and Cirque du Soleil. Female spectators drove to the race unchaperoned by male relatives after the world’s last ban on women driving was scrapped.

The Kingdom has loosened the reins on the entertainment industry since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed his role in 2017. Officials have lifted a 30-year ban on cinemas, while cafes are filled with music previously considered immoral in the conservative kingdom.

Updated: January 23, 2019 08:10 PM

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