RIYADH Saudi Arabia will one day open cinemas and build a world-class opera house, the man spearheading the kingdom’s entertainment reforms said on Thursday, downplaying opposition by powerful religious authorities to changes they see as sinful.
The kingdom had some cinemas in the 1970s but the clerical establishment persuaded the authorities to close them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time.
Cinemas are still banned. And while concerts have started to be held this year, they remain frowned on by clerics.
But the government has promised a shake-up of the cultural scene with a set of “Vision 2030” reforms announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz last year, aimed at creating jobs and opening up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.
The changes are also intended to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas by Saudis, who are accustomed to travelling abroad to see shows and visit amusement parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or further afield.
In a Reuters interview, Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said conservatives who criticized the reforms were gradually learning that most Saudis, a majority of whom are under 30, wanted these changes.
His goal was to create entertainment that “will be like 99 percent of what is going on in London and New York,” although he noted that after decades of cultural conservatism such change could not be rapid.
“I believe we are winning the argument,” he said. A few Saudis were liberal, a few conservative, but “the majority are moderate.”
“They travel, they go to cinemas, they go to concerts. I am counting on the middle segment, which is about 80 pct of the population,” he said. Conservatives, he added, could simply opt to stay at home if they did not care for the events.