Into the Twilight Zone

When satellite dishes began to appear on the rooftops of Saudi homes in the early 1990s, entertainment options were scarce but managed to deliver to the eager audience. On MBC, Rania Barghout would read letters written by Arab viewers with song requests. ART’s Liliane Andraos would engage in small talk with callers, mostly from the Gulf, who enjoyed the opportunity to talk on television with her. Arab series and American movies added more diversity to the list of guilty pleasures.

At the turn of the millennium, increased travels allowed Saudis to seek more entertainment options abroad. King Fahd Causeway has stood as a witness to the weekend exodus to Bahrain, one of the main destinations for entertainment. During the Saudi school holiday last December, Saudi holiday-goers were allowed to cross over to Bahrain without the usual border procedures due to the high traffic.

Saudi cars on King Fahad Casway (via Saudi Gazette)

Keeping Saudis in

The new Chairman of the General Entertainment Authority announced last month that stopping the exodus for entertainment is high on his priority list. The new entertainment agenda was unveiled in a glitzy press conference that witnessed Saudi singer Muhammad Abdu and sheikh Adel Al-Kalbani literally rubbing shoulders. Following the conference, Al-Kalbani wrote an article in Al-Riyadh newspaper praising the authority’s efforts and encouraging Saudis to seek entertainment. In his article, Al-Kalbani explains that recreation and worship complement each other, citing an incident between the Prophet and Abu Bakir to back his argument. The entertainment agenda witnessed a number of events that would be suitable for conservatives and non-conservatives alike. However, allowing restaurants and cafes to host musical and other entertainment events was received with a mixed reaction.  

The process of normalization

At first, entertainment seemed to be one of the tools of “shock therapy” to change the society and make it accept social reforms. However, looking now at the pattern of entertainment since concerts were allowed more than a year ago, one can see that gradual normalization has been part of the strategy of entertainment. For example, the tickets for Tamer Hosney’s concert in March 2018 included a line stating that “dancing is strictly prohibited during the concert”. However, on Tamer Hosney’s upcoming concert this February, the prohibition is nowhere to be seen on the new tickets. In the space of one year, dancing became normalized after it was first witnessed during the Formula E events in Riyadh last December. The initial shock among Saudis soon died out as more dancing was seen again during the concerts in Jeddah last month.

Another example of normalization is allowing musical performances to take place in a wider range of venues. Up until recently, certain entertainment options were exclusively available and not easily accessible. Even before the establishment of the General Authority of Entertainment, certain events took place in big cities but were usually by invitation only and catered to small and exclusive groups. Therefore, when concerts were first announced, the conservative backlash was countered by Saudis eager for entertainment. Their argument was that conservatives do not have to go to concerts and should frequent other places such as restaurants and malls. Now that a wider range of entertainment performances are expected to take place at restaurants and cafes, options for conservatives are even more limited. Last week, a musical parade headed by a woman dancing took place in one of the malls in Jeddah. The parade seems to be one of the normalization efforts that will start targeting malls to expand the circle of entertainment outlets.

Availability and exclusivity

The debate on the availability and exclusivity of entertainment options gets even more complicated when looking at Winter at Tantora festival that is being held in Al-Ula. A big number of foreign tourists visited the festival and posted photos of the Instagrammable site which were widely circulated on social media. This prompted Saudis to question whether the site is being promoted mostly for non-Saudis visitors. A video of a woman running to Qasr Al-Farid also raised the question of exclusivity, arguing that if a Saudi woman visits these sites and posts a similar photo of herself on Twitter she might be prosecuted. However, there were also a number of Saudi men and women who took part in the festival to attend performances by Andrea Bocelli and a holographic Um Kalthoum. Some have complained about the high prices which can cost more than $5,000 for packages including flights and accommodation. Nevertheless, ِthe site is expected to expand and host more events as part of “Vision of Al-Ula” which was launched on Sunday.

The issue of “space” 

The music parade in Jeddah coincided with another dancing incident at Souq Al-Mubarakiya in Kuwait as part of the Hala February annual festival. Souq Al-Mubarakiya has always been a traditional shopping area, despite attempts to turn it into a hip hangout with the addition of SoMu’s new and trendy cafes. The dancing competition was received negatively by some conservative members of the Kuwait National Assembly. As a result, the activities at Souq Al-Mubarakiya were stopped. This drastic approach in Kuwait was perplexing to Saudis who often considered Kuwait to be an open and relaxed society. It also served as a reminded that conservative factions are present and active in other Gulf countries, and not only exclusive to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Kuwaitis observing the Saudi entertainment scene compared the two incidents, arguing that the conservatives in Kuwait are pushing back due to the curtailing of their influence in Saudi. The issue of “space” seems to be the problem in both examples. It would have been acceptable to see a dancing competition in other venues in Kuwait such as malls, but not in Souq Al-Mubarakiya. This brings to memory an incident that happened in the Riyadh International Book Fair in 2017 when Malaysia was the annual guest of honor. As part of their performance during the fair, a man walked in and interrupted the show, arguing that the book fair is the wrong venue for such a performance. As entertainment will start spreading to other venues in Saudi Arabia, the issue of “acceptable spaces” might become the new challenge.

Entertainment in Saudi Arabia will always generate mixed reactions due to the big and diverse population. A year ago, allowing women to enter football stadiums was considered a bold step. Now, it does not generate much resentment anymore. Dancing during the Formula E concerts last December raised many eyebrows. Today, it has lost the shock effect that was prevalent when it first happened. On social media and in private discussions, the issue of entertainment seems to worry a faction of society that sees the efforts as invasive and immoral. For others, attending entertainment events in Saudi Arabia is a chance to cross over into the twilight zone.

Special thanks to Abrar Al-Shammari for her helpful insight on Kuwait.

One thought on “Into the Twilight Zone

  1. I find it a bit challenging to measure the society’s reaction to such entertainment events given that people, mostly, tend to never speak their free minds, even though some did, either due to societal pressure or other factors. Comparing reactions to the same reoccurring event the following year would give a good insight, as many would still resist, or more will welcome or attend open air concerts like the formula E ones. What would be interesting to know as well is how the conservative side of society building the resistance.

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