Why Saudi Arabia is allowing people to have a lot more fun

As part of a shock therapy to overhaul the deteriorating economy, the government is relaxing the rules on having fun in the ultra-conservative society — and also plans to make some cash from it. The kingdom is hardly synonymous with entertainment: religious police order music to be silenced and citizens usually travel to Dubai or Bahrain when they want to catch a movie or a show. Now the plan is to turn cheering people up into an industry.

The changes are part of Vision 2030, the blueprint for a post-oil economy dropped on Saudis in April by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s powerful 31-year-old son. It tackles everything from government spending on subsidies to the role of women in the workforce, and people are trying to figure out how it can work.

When it comes to fun, it states that by 2020, there will be more than 450 clubs providing a variety of cultural activities and events.

Dubai is a favorite destination for artists and filmmakers who cannot show their works at home. When Abdulmajeed Abdullah, a popular Saudi singer, performed in the city in March, the show was sold out to a mostly Saudi audience.

Last January, organisers of a performance by Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters separated men and women inside a white tent pitched in the desert outside Riyadh. The audience, who had driven 95 kilometers outside of the capital down a dark and secluded road to attend, tried to protest before giving up. For 22-year-old college student Marwa Yassin and her girlfriends, the experience was worth it.

“I felt like I was part of a real society,” Yassin told Bloomberg. “We sat together and laughed together. When the show was over, we all stood in lines in the cold to buy burgers or crepes from food trucks. We ran into friends. It felt right.”

But now, authorities are sponsoring events in the kingdom’s biggest cities and in 2017 plan to expand its activities to other regions. So far, they have included World Wrestling Entertainment in Riyadh — for men and their kids only — and a motor sports and music show that drew 6,000 spectators to a venue outside Jeddah. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is looking into a Saudi project and Six Flags has agreed to open a theme park in the Kingdom. James Reid-Anderson, chairman of Six Flags, said the park would cost as much as $500 million.

Courtesy: Bloomberg