The social media accounts of Saudi Arabia’s new General Entertainment Authority (GEA), established to regulate the country's entertainment industry, have been viewed by some two million users eager to find out more about the newly-created authority.
The GEA has 478,000 followers on Twitter and 972,000 viewers on YouTube, while 80,000 people on Facebook liked or signed up for the GEA’s page, with more liking it on Instagram and Snapchat.
The GEA has announced that 1,500 entertainment events will be held in 2018 in Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world.
These include plays, jazz concerts, traditional and oriental music concerts, and children’s performances such as circuses and famous cartoon characters from overseas.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman told the American magazine the Atlantic Monthly on a recent visit to the US that Riyadh had changed track after 1979, a year when the holy site of Mecca was raided, the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, and the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top supplier of oil, then adopted a more religious strategy to meet these challenges, he said.
In a BBC Arabic documentary, Mecca Under Siege, experts said that after the raid on Mecca in 1979, Riyadh became more radical on religious matters, including by banning cinemas, certain television entertainment and even songs by the legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum.
Female television anchors vanished from the country’s handful of children’s programmes, and things in general became more hardline.
Now, Saudi Arabia is changing after decisions taken by the crown prince, who is particularly popular among young people, the majority of the population, and the middle classes -- especially those who have studied in the west on government scholarships.
Since the 1970s, the Saudi government had funded an ambitious programme of study abroad that has benefited around one million students and professionals who have received bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.
Torki Al-Hamad, a Saudi university professor and author, said the beneficiaries had become a social force in the Saudi middle class and an alternative to traditional merchants and clerics who dominated before the discovery of oil.
This educated middle class has a relatively high income and, together with young people, represents some 60 per cent of the population. They also want to be entertained.
Since the kingdom lacks the infrastructure for entertainment, the GEA has announced investments worth $64 billion over the next decade, huge for a largely non-industrial country.
Mohamed Al-Saad, a Saudi financial and banking expert, said the GEA would promote investment in the entertainment business, which could become independent due to the strength of the Saudi market.
“There is a lot of focus on the entertainment industry because no investor wants to spend his money on sectors the government is not interested in,” he said.
Investments include building cinemas, theatres, gardens and music venues, as well as funding acting and art troupes. The Al-Fattim Company and the US’s Marvel Entertainment Company have already inaugurated the first cinemas in Riyadh and Jeddah.
French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen said during the crown prince’s recent visit to Paris that her country would assist Saudi Arabia in constructing a new Opera House.
Egyptian actor Ashraf Abdel-Baki said Saudi officials have offered him a job establishing local theatres.
Kuwait relied on Egyptian expertise in the 1950s and 1960s to build its cultural base, with the late Zaki Tulaimat working in theatre and acting, Fouad Zakaria on its reference books and Modern Thought magazine, Ahmed Zaki on the Al-Arabi magazine and others who founded Kuwait University and built the country’s journalism industry in the 1970s and 1980s.
The GEA launched its music concerts with a mixed audience of men and women broadcast around the world with Egyptian singer Tamer Hosni.
“This change will have a great impact on the Arab music and art market, since the drama and music industries will now focus on the Gulf audience, especially in Saudi Arabia, where revenues could be higher than in any other Arab country,” said Essam Zakaria, a journalist and art critic.
Marvel Entertainment estimates cinema revenues in Saudi Arabia could reach $1 billion annually, a very large figure compared to that in other Arab or Muslim countries.
The King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh has announced two series of short films and documentaries and plans to launch ambitious funding for cinema production.
The Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah is home to many music and comedy troupes performing mainly in small halls.
It is not known how large the demand for entertainment will be in Saudi Arabia, however, especially since large sectors of the society are conservative.
These conservative blocs are strengthened by the conflict with Iran, and Saudi Arabia is at war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels that it views as “sectarian agents of Iran.”
As the conflict with the Iran continues, social media in Saudi Arabia is steeped in sectarian sentiment. Saudi government schools still use a syllabus based on religious Wahhabi views and other similar doctrines, and many families still ban their daughters from attending entertainment activities.
“These are real concerns, and every step society takes will be a battle, most likely resulting in more openness and freedom,” Al-Hamad said. “Extremism is on the way out, and the war on radicalism in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab and Muslim countries is forcing it to retreat.”
Financial expert Al-Saad said that some families in Saudi Arabia might still prevent their daughters from driving, “but car agencies are preparing campaigns to convince families of the necessity of buying cars for their daughters just like their sons."
Once female drivers become commonplace, families that are refusing will join the general trend. The same thing will happen with the entertainment industry. As it gains in popularity, conservatives will be forced to embrace the new trends,” he said.
Saudi Arabia may be on the verge of major social and cultural changes, with the government bracing for victory and the end of the era of closed doors.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly