Let Me Entertain You: Saudi Arabia’s New Enthusiasm for Fun
When family budgets tighten, dinner out, movies, and other diversions are often the first expenses eliminated. But in Saudi Arabia, austerity is being accompanied by the promotion of activities once forbidden in the conservative kingdom. After an inaugural calendar that included concerts, Comic Con, and monster trucks, the Saudi General Entertainment Authority is doubling its sponsorship to 5,000 events in 2018. Its chief, Ahmad bin Aqeel al-Khatib, has trumpeted plans to invest $64 billion in the entertainment sector over the coming decade, boasting that the sector will trail only oil and defense spending in budgetary priorities.
While entertainment is unlikely to outstrip health and education in spending, the new emphasis on the sector is remarkable. Social outings with mixed genders, open cinemas, and performing arts represent a dramatic reversal from the past when Saudis pursued their amusements in private or abroad. What explains the government’s new enthusiasm for fun?
Restive Saudi Youth
There is no question that demand from the younger generation is driving this change. While conducting research on youth activism in Saudi Arabia from 2011-15, youth-led initiatives were present in big cities across the kingdom: from hiking groups, reading circles, and underground theater movements to social reform initiatives and charitable endeavors. Independent art collectives such as Edge of Arabia in Abha and the Saudi Art Council in Jeddah nurtured talent and provided international exposure for Saudi visual and conceptual artists. The wildly successful YouTube collectives of Telfaz11 in Riyadh and UTURN in Jeddah combined local culture with comedy, showcasing both the creative talent of Saudis and their commercial viability.
The millennials behind these ventures were motivated by a desire for connection and purpose, and by sheer boredom. Public life was so restricted and barren that one group organizing TED talks in Riyadh found its meeting space overwhelmed as thousands of young Saudis sought to attend. Yet for all of their efforts, Saudi youth organizers were often targeted by religious movements and interrogated by the Ministry of Interior.
The rapid ascendance of the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, brought to power a fellow millennial, keenly attuned to the cultural shift occurring in the kingdom, and the online and mobile technologies mediating Saudi youth connections and ambitions. Aware of a constituency for change, he immediately sought to harness that youthful energy for his plans for economic and political transformation. Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is more than just fun and games: It is a tool for opening the economy and courting a key demographic, depriving the once allied religious movements and religious establishment of their hold over the public.
Betting on an Arts and Entertainment Economy
The Saudi plan for economic diversification, Saudi Vision 2030, envisions a prominent role for tourism and entertainment. They are woven into the Saudi Public Investment Fund program in a number of ways: through the creation of a new entertainment company to organize events and oversee investments; through tourism infrastructure projects; and as the central focus of two “giga-projects,” a resort area to be built on the Red Sea coast closest to the archaeological site of Madain Saleh, and at a leisure city of theme parks and vacation homes, Qiddiya, to be built southwest of Riyadh. The government wants to capture the pent-up demand for leisure activities due to the social restrictions that have existed and encourage household spending on entertainment to rise from 2.9 to 6 percent.
On the supply side, the government believes that public investment alongside that of global strategic partners will stimulate private sector interest. There is confidence that the entertainment sector will create jobs and opportunities for small- or medium-sized enterprises and that more creative endeavors will be especially attractive to young Saudis.
Localization is a stated goal. Projects such as the Saudi National Creative Initiative have worked to catalogue Saudis engaged in creative fields and the impediments to their expansion, while foundations such as the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation, MiSK, have created programs and opportunities to develop their talents. The participation of Saudis in creating their own arts and entertainment is important, not only from an economic standpoint, but also to advance a new national identity, one less dependent on the Islamic tradition that has structured youth outreach for decades.
Displacing Islamist Networks
There is a subtle political angle to the social opening in the kingdom. The deprivation of arts and entertainment has not only been an outcome of the Islamic orthodoxy in the kingdom; it has helped to constitute it. Bereft of sports and leisure, and deprived of even mundane social outings, Saudi youth seeking companionship and public engagement long turned to informal Islamic networks. These movements dominated the youth programming of after-school activities and summer camps, with the tacit support of the state.
Since the era of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, these activities have been scaled back, and the room for independent organization curtailed, especially since the 2014 publication of the new terrorism law that criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood. Under King Salman bin Abdulaziz, key Islamist figures, from the Muslim Brotherhood and the competing Sururi networks as well as more liberal reformists, have been imprisoned.
The drive for entertainment is part of a constructive effort to displace the Islamist appeal to youth by offering alternatives: a carrot to complement the stick. In a recent visit with the Saudi minister of education, Ahmed al-Isa, he contrasted a positive approach of participation with the traditional control through “thought security.” To that end, the Saudi education consultancy Tatweer has begun establishing neighborhood clubs across the kingdom to offer extracurricular activities such as sports and theater. Islamic nongovernmental organizations such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, which encouraged Islamic charity and identification with the broader Islamic community, have had their domestic activities curtailed, while MiSK engages Saudi youth through multiple programs in art, digital media, and creative writing.
The entertainment activities and future investments of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority offer another leading instrument to push for this cultural change. Their diverse offerings entertain, but they also shift public norms, making space for music and art and drawing women more into public life.
Pushing Boundaries, Discovering Red Lines
King Abdullah experimented with cultural change and economic opening through enclaves, introducing gender mixing and cultural openings in the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, and loosening restrictions on foreign investment in the King Abdullah Economic City. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is attempting something more ambitious: economic and cultural change at a national level.
Arts and entertainment are key vectors for both of these objectives. Still their effectiveness as economic drivers is not yet clear, and their ability to sustain youth enthusiasm may wane if overall reforms do not succeed in meeting the growing need for private sector jobs. At the same time, the creation of a truly localized entertainment and arts economy will require a broader investment in creative education that will test the Saudi leadership’s commitment to cultural openness. Some events of the General Entertainment Authority have been resisted, especially in provinces outside of the major cities. And the red lines are still being negotiated as indicated by the recent firing of a government official over a beauty show, and a confusing retraction of the announcement for a new opera. The stakes are even higher for artists: Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, a member of the Saudi-British art collective Edge of Arabia, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2016, and remains in jail.
Still, the kingdom’s leadership appears determined to chart an alternative course, with arts and entertainment markers of the new Saudi Arabia.
Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.