Feb. 28, 2018
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is known around the world for many things, but world-class entertainment is not necessarily one of them.
That could be about to change.
After decades of restrictions on the type of entertainment allowed in the country, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced that he will be injecting an astonishing USD64 billion into the country's entertainment sector over the next decade.
The reasons behind the change in policy are not difficult to spot. Since the collapse in oil prices in 2014, the biggest oil exporter in the world faced considerable budget restrictions and was forced to undergo rapid diversification of its economy, and adopt restrictive budgeting measures.
The entertainment and tourism industries could go a long way to bringing profitability to a thus far underdeveloped sector.
And the Crown Prince's liberalizing vision for the kingdom would be complemented by the elaboration of a new entertainment industry. Saudi Arabia already has plans to allow women to drive, open businesses without permission from husbands, and partake in other activities until now unavailable to them.
And though Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to women's rights, even these small developments were unthinkable just five years ago.
January 2018 saw the lifting of a ban on cinemas in place for over three and half decades. Now, Saudi authorities state that they expect as many as 300 cinemas to open their doors over the next three years.
The entertainment sector witnessed a major expansion, and will host 2,000 different events annually, according to official figures, compared to only 56 in 2016.
2018 should see last year's figures more than double. Big Western acts have already been announced to come to the kingdom, including Cirque du Soleil and Andrea Bocelli. Around 8.2 million people attended entertainment events in Saudi Arabia in 2017. Many more are expected this year.
Of course, the Saudi middle class, with all the purchasing power it has enjoyed over the last few decades, wasn't completely starved of entertainment.
Each year, despite the official bans, Saudi officials have stood by as the country's youth flooded into neighboring UAE and Bahrain to attend music festivals, cinemas, and assorted parties. Dubai, in particular, has become a well-known nightlife and entertainment center in the Middle East and for neighboring regions, and many Saudis cross the border to spend their money in the Emirati metropolis.
But the shift in policy toward entertainment is just as much economic as it is ideological. Saudi Arabia needs a booming entertainment industry to keep its citizens spending money in the country, and potentially to attract visitors from other countries.
By becoming a world-class entertainment center, Saudi Arabia could enjoy enormous benefits as it begins seriously competing with the UAE for international visitors.
And this is the logic behind the “Don't Travel" campaign that has been targeting young Saudis, with the aim of convincing them to explore new entertainment opportunities within the kingdom rather than in neighboring countries.
At the same time, tourism authorities announced a liberalization of the system for issuing travel visas, opening the kingdom's doors to a much wider number of foreign nationals. The new travel rules will come into effect by the end of March 2018 and will come with a revision of acceptable behavior for foreign visitors, aimed at curbing cultural clashes.
The luxury hotel industry has been following these developments closely and is accelerating development. The sector is expected to grow by 18% in 2018, far outdoing the Emirati growth rate of 10%. In a few years, the Saudi market could surpass the UAE as the biggest luxury tourism market in the region.
None of this will come without challenges. Despite the Crown Prince's best liberalizing intentions, some within the country will try to resist these dramatic social changes.
After all, the kingdom already boasts a strong tourism industry linked to religious pilgrimages to the cities of Mecca and Medina. The balance to be found between the attachment to religious purity and the need for the kingdom to keep up with advancements in the rest of the world will define the future of Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, stories like that of Maryam Al-Harbi, Saudi Arabia's first female tour guide, who was recently named best tourist guide of 2017 by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, paint an optimistic picture of the kingdom's entertainment and tourism industry, as well as the rights of women in the country.