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How an entertainment explosion is driving change and transforming Saudi Arabia

DUBAI: Until five years ago, most forms of mass entertainment were frowned upon in Saudi Arabia. No music was played at public concerts, no cinema impressed viewers with cinematic magic, and gender segregation was the norm in public places.

Fast forward to today: Saudi Arabia has gone from almost zero entertainment venue to a Middle Eastern hub for cultural events, art exhibitions and film screenings.

This is all the result of Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform plan launched in 2016 to transform the Kingdom socially and economically. The strategy aims to increase Saudi household spending on cultural and entertainment activities inside the Kingdom to 6%.

In the meantime, the Saudi entertainment industry has seen explosive growth. Movie theaters are found in almost every city, and men and women can get together and socialize freely.

Saudi fans attend the “MDL Beast Fest”, an electronic music festival, held in Banban, on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh. (AFP)

Major music concerts like MDL Beast entertain hundreds of thousands of people. International film festivals and contemporary art exhibitions are held regularly, and celebrities and artists are frequent visitors to Saudi Arabia.

“We want Saudis to enjoy their country, and we want to bring them entertainment and become like the rest of the world,” Kaswara Alkhatib, media manager at the Kingdom’s National Events Center, told Arab News.

“Saudi people no longer need to travel to be entertained, and foreigners can come and be entertained in the Kingdom. In today’s world, you can’t be a closed country that has no entertainment and allows your people to travel outside, and that has been the biggest change factor influencing the state of mind of the Saudis.

The entertainment industry is one of the drivers of social and economic change that is opening Saudi Arabia to the world. Vision 2030 envisions and supports the expansion of the entertainment market to SR30 billion ($8 billion).


A photo released by the Saudi General Culture Authority on April 26, 2018 shows the National Arabic Music Ensemble (AME) of the Cairo Opera House performing at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh. (AFP/Saudi General Culture Authority)

Saudi Arabia has one of the largest populations in the Middle East and, with around half of its inhabitants under the age of 30, there is a large and growing appetite for entertainment. Hundreds of new cinemas, theme park projects, entertainment cities and family entertainment centers are expected to be built by 2030.

A 2021 study by US-based Research and Markets said the entertainment market in Saudi Arabia is expected to grow from its current size ($23.77 million in 2020) to $1.17 billion. by the end of 2030, an annual growth rate of 47.65%.

“The Saudi entertainment industry has gone from zero to hero in just a few years,” Alkhatib said. “Before Saudi Seasons, entertainment in Saudi Arabia was not there. It used to be that entertainment meant going to the mall or having dinner or getting together with family and friends. Before, there were very few places where a family or friends friends could visit, with very few occasions for parties or concerts.

“There were no cinemas, plays or international concerts. Saudis used to travel outside of Saudi Arabia to attend a concert and see performances by some of Saudi Arabia’s most popular singers, such as Mohammed Abdu. The concerts were not given in Arabia; they were made outside of Saudi Arabia.

Now, Saudis are coming out in droves to watch musical performances. Men, women and children attend these events, enjoying concerts featuring not only local artists but foreign artists as well.


Saudi women gather at a cinema in Riyadh Park Mall after it opened to the general public on April 30, 2018. (AFP/File Photo)

“Today, we are proud to have these concerts at home. Not only for Saudi artists, but also because we managed to attract many international artists and celebrities from the region and the West,” said Alkhatib: “That was definitely one of the major transformations.”

Saudi Seasons, an initiative launched by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in 2019, plans and organizes festivals in various regions to shed light on Saudi culture and heritage and bring entertainment to more Saudis.

The first Saudi Seasons held 11 festivals across the Kingdom, a practice that continues. There have been seasons for Riyadh, Jeddah, Eastern Province, Taif, Al-Soudah, National Day, Diriyah, AlUla, Hail, Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr.

The initiative is spearheaded by various Saudi authorities, including the Ministry of Culture, the General Entertainment Authority, the Ministry of Sports and the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau under the guidance of a committee headed by the Crown Prince.

The main objectives of Saudi Seasons are to increase tourism spending in Saudi Arabia, provide more employment opportunities, stimulate business initiatives and tourism in Saudi Arabia, and improve the quality of life.

INNUMBERS

* 50% of residents are under 30 years old.

* Target of 6% of household spending on entertainment and cultural activities within the Kingdom as part of Vision 2030.

* 80% of current household entertainment budget spent abroad.

* Projected entertainment market size of SR30 billion under Vision 2030.

It has also generated huge employment opportunities for Saudi youth. The 2019 Jeddah season alone created 5,000 job opportunities for young men and women.

The Saudi film industry has grown alongside the Kingdom’s rapid progress in entertainment. In recent years, young filmmakers have returned to the country after years of working abroad to reap the benefits of the Kingdom’s investments in entertainment.

In February 2020, the Ministry of Culture established the Film Commission, a government body dedicated to “developing and organizing the film sector, raising its level of production, marketing Saudi films, the encouragement of financing and investment and the development of content.The commission also supports young creative talents, defines laws and regulations as well as represents the Kingdom in regional and international forums related to cinema.

Other bodies that support cinema in the Kingdom include Film AlUla and the Misk Foundation, established by the Crown Prince to empower Saudi youth and support Saudi Arabia’s social transformation. Misk runs a screenwriting program, among other initiatives, to help filmmakers.


Saudi Arabia has one of the largest populations in the Middle East and, with around half of its inhabitants under the age of 30, there is a large and growing appetite for entertainment. (Provided)

Saad Abutaily, a 29-year-old national who works for Riyadh-based Nebras Films, was born and raised in London, where he lived most of his life until returning to the Kingdom in 2019.

Abutaily pointed out how much funding there is to help Saudi filmmakers. “Everything is coming back to life now,” he told Arab News.

In Nebras, Abutaily said he regularly sees new graduates receiving government assistance to produce their films and advance their careers.

In May, it was announced that Saudi Arabia’s expanding Telfaz 11 studios had struck a deal with French outfit Easy Riders Films to jointly produce four Saudi films. Abutaily said Nebras is currently producing another film independently.


Seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, one of several sporting events held in the Kingdom as part of its Vision 2030 plans. (AFP)

Last November, Saudi authorities announced investments totaling $64 billion in the nascent entertainment industry as part of a broader effort to wean the economy off oil and, in due course, become the main cinema destination in the region.

“In 2019, things started to change. In 2021/2022, the country is totally different,” Abutaily said from Riyadh, where he is based. “I now take better advantage of my weekends here than in Cannes and London. There are so many things you can do here now. There are artists, screenwriters, film producers and filmmakers. The list continues.

“That’s what makes it healthy for us to live in Saudi Arabia. We are finally being accepted by our government and our security, and every few months there are even more changes and new announcements.


Saudis no longer need to travel for entertainment and foreigners can come and enjoy themselves in the Kingdom, according to Kaswara Alkhatib, head of media at the National Events Center of Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

Abutaily said it was a good time to be in Saudi Arabia, not only for Saudis but also for foreigners. “Music producers are now producing music in Saudi Arabia. Artists, filmmakers and many more have now returned to the country from the US, UK and UAE. They came back when they realized how many new opportunities there were.

“COVID-19 slowed us down, but now things are back on track and in full swing. Culture has always existed in Saudi Arabia, but it was very limited. There were only restaurants, malls malls and cafes. Now I see Saudis returning from abroad to attend large public gatherings and performances here.

Saudi filmmakers are also traveling more in the Kingdom, visiting Abha, AlUla, NEOM, Taif, Jeddah and the Eastern Province, drawing inspiration from their own country and shooting films on location in various regions.

“The whole world is curious about Saudi history,” Mujtaba Saeed, a 35-year-old filmmaker who splits his time between Saudi Arabia and Germany, told Arab News.

“We have a lot of untold stories and we want to share our human experience with the world. As a filmmaker, we now have a lot of support from the Film Commission set up by the Ministry of Culture, which has helped us to tell our story to the world.”

His recent short film “Zawal”, which shows the pandemic from a refugee’s perspective, won the Golden Palm Award at the 2022 Saudi Film Festival and recently received the Golden Sail at the Gulf TV and Broadcast Festival in Bahrain.

“We are currently living in a historic moment in Saudi Arabia,” Saeed said. “We want to express ourselves, tell our stories and show the world that we are similar, that our needs and our goals are universal.”