Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has gone through massive changes from an austere fiefdom retaining an air of religious conservatism to an open-door social order that has loosened vast restrictions in a way that was once deemed unIslamic.
Among a slew of social changes unveiled in Saudi Arabia and championed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman have been efforts to remake the Arab entertainment scene as a catalyst for Saudi supremacy in the field.
The bid is aimed to push the oil-rich kingdom as the entertainment industry’s centre stage in the Arab world. From soap operas to concerts for prominent Arab singers and music festivals and most recently dance parties, the Saudis are trying to put their mark on the industry.
But a sharp eye for the underside of Saudi Arabia’s cultural opening shows that the country is setting new goals for the creation of Arab mentalities through influencing the Arab art and culture industry.
Whether Saudi popular culture is actually ascending in this era of confusion and uncertainty has become a matter of debate as the country jostles fiercely for markets with older Arab centres of art and culture.
With mass entertainment events and projects underway, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) is reportedly planning to invest some $64 billion in its entertainment sector in order to turn the country into a top-tier destination for the industry.
The GEA, headed by Turki Al-Sheikh, a close adviser to Bin Salman, was set up in line with the Saudi Vision 2030, the crown prince’s long-term goal of establishing a “vibrant society and thriving economy.”
The organisation has been tasked to “regulate and develop the entertainment sector by providing inclusive, world-class entertainment offerings” that will drive the industry to contribute to the fulfillment of the Vision.
Under Al-Sheikh, it has undertaken massive projects in art and entertainment capped by an array of festivities in the country that have included numerous events and concerts attracting Arab divas and icons and sometimes also top-tier international talents such as US actor John Travolta.
The Saudi Ministry of Commerce announced last week that the country had seen its highest number of commercial registrations in the entertainment and arts industry with a 906 per cent increase in 2021 compared to 2015.
In December, Saudi Arabia inaugurated its first fully-fledged film festival in Jeddah with more than 130 films from some 67 countries participating. Along with celebrities from the region, the Red Sea International Film Festival boasted a slice of glamour, with guests including international show business figures Catherine Deneuve, Naomi Campbell and Clive Owen.
The country’s streaming networks are also working on films and TV projects starring top actors such as Gerard Butler while partnering with Netflix to produce feature films.
Investment in the entertainment sector is part of Bin Salman’s social reforms in the kingdom, which include cracking down on moral conservatism and especially restrictions on women.
At mass entertainment events, men and women are now able to mix in ways that were once unthinkable in the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques,” Islam’s most sacred sites, with thousands in the audience dancing to some of the most advanced DJs in the world.
The change is not aimed at a domestic audience. With plans to diversify its income, Saudi Arabia is pushing its “social revolution” to attract foreign tourism to revamp its economy.
The change is also about a deep-seated pursuit of prestige and national assertion against regional rivals whose cultural “soft power” was on display when Saudi Arabia was still relying on religious fundamentalism for moral authority in the region.
As the Arab powerhouses jostle for regional supremacy, another competition is unfolding as well. Saudi Arabia is competing with Egypt and the other cultural centres that have long dominated the Arab world in literature, music, cinema and modern art.
Cairo has always been the heart of the Arab entertainment business, and for decades Egypt was considered to be the Hollywood of the Middle East whose movies and TV series were the country’s most glamorous export.
Egypt’s cinema tradition dates back to 5 November 1896 when the first short films of the French Lumière Brothers were shown in Alexandria less than a year after their Paris premiere.
The opening of a series of small film theatres in Cairo and Alexandria followed, and soon the country witnessed its first film studio in the real sense of the word, not only in Egypt but also in the entire Arab world.
By 1927, Egypt had made its first full-length feature film, “Kiss in the Desert,” followed by several silent movies before the first sound film, “Song of the Heart,” arrived four years later.
For decades, Egyptian cinema reflected the nation’s culture and unloaded hundreds of films in the Arab countries. Audiences across the Middle East as far as Iran and Turkey adored Egyptian singers and film stars.
After the rise of the pan-Arab regime of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egyptian cinema witnessed its Golden Age when Cairo became the biggest exporter of films to the region and an important source of popular culture in the Arab world.
The 1950s and 1960s were viewed as a time of cultural rebirth for Egypt, when its cultural offerings chimed with the spirit of Nasser’s nationalism and pan-Arabism and the region slowly progressed on its post-colonial journey towards modernity.
Despite later cultural and societal drift, political and economic difficulties, and competition from newly emerging regional entertainment centres, the Egyptian film and TV industry has remained the producer of some of Egypt’s most glamorous exports.
However, perhaps inevitably, Egypt’s entertainment industry has become embroiled in the fierce competition for soft power with other regional heavyweights that have been competing for domination as changing political, economic, technological, and social forces put their mark on the era.
In a broader regional sense, the Saudi entertainment boom has raised questions about how far the country could play a vital role in promoting and influencing art and entertainment and the advancement of the Arab mind.
Thus far, the Saudi authorities have made headway in using the entertainment revolution to reinvent the ultra-conservative country, changing it into an open society and eliminating extremist beliefs.
Saudi plans to hold big entrainment events and invite famous performers from around the world to connect with the local public seem also to be working and gaining regional and international fame.
But in the tough regional competition to build and leverage cultural prestige, whether the country can grow into a regional entertainment hub by spending billions of dollars remains open to serious questioning.
In the world of art and culture, there are innumerable other factors involved besides money, not least the national infrastructure that forms the backbone for culture in any given country.
Though the contest for soft power between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has never been an official issue, it has recently become a source of debate on social media platforms, with arguments and sentiments striking chords in each country.
Bashful-boastful arguments involving prominent Egyptian actors, their syndicate, and Al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi GEA, have largely been over debunking, remaking, or undoing competing narratives about cultural winners.
Yet, they have also unintentionally opened the door to a more serious intra-Arab debate about regional cultural history and the inexorable game of attracting attention and promoting competition in rewriting culture into the core script for the future.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.