June 1st 2017
IT IS hardly surprising that Rachid and his friends had not heard of Toby Keith before seeing him perform. Mr Keith is an American country-music star who sings about drinking beer and chasing girls. Rachid and his pals live in Saudi Arabia, where that kind of thing is forbidden. So why did they go to his concert in Riyadh, the capital, last month? “I just wanted to see what was going on,” said Abdulaziz, another attendee.
A better question is: why was Mr Keith in Riyadh? His arrival coincided with a visit by Donald Trump. But the concert, which included Rabeh Saqer, a popular Saudi musician, is also part of a push to make the kingdom more fun. With cultural life restricted under the kingdom’s strict Islamic social code, so much so that even cinemas are banned, many Saudis head to places like Dubai for entertainment. The government wants to keep more of their money at home—and perhaps loosen things up a bit.
“What we aim to do is create happiness,” says Ahmed al-Khatib, the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which is overseeing the push. Creating revenue adds to the pleasure. The GEA was formed last year as part of a broader effort to diversify the kingdom’s oil-based economy. The authorities hope to double household spending on culture and entertainment inside the kingdom by 2030. “We’re well on our way,” says Mr Khatib.
There have been over 3,000 events so far this year, up from 300 last year, according to the GEA. One was a packed performance by Muhammad Abdu (pictured), a Saudi singer, in Riyadh in March. Until this year there had not been a concert in the capital for nearly three decades. Of course, the fun is still restricted. Only men were allowed to attend the shows of Mr Abdu and Mr Keith. When a co-ed hip-hop dance group called iLuminate came to town, the creator toned down the costumes and took out hip movements. It helped that the show is performed in the dark.
Some Saudis still can’t stand it. Cinemas and concerts are “a depravity”, said the kingdom’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, in January. But what really set off the conservatives was a Comic-Con event in Jeddah a month later. Young geeks dressed up as comic-book superheroes, boys and girls mingled and some even danced together. Imams accused the attendees of idolatry and debauchery.
But many Saudis defended the event. “If you look at the culture today, it is much more open than five or ten years ago,” says Mr Khatib. Last year the government curbed the Mutaween (religious police), who harassed citizens for such infractions as wearing nail polish. Now Mr Khatib talks of backing the creators of a viral video featuring women in vibrant dresses riding skateboards. He has a powerful backer in Muhammad bin Salman, the young deputy crown prince, who is leading the economic reform effort. Cirque du Soleil is on its way, as is an “entertainment city”, featuring a safari and a Six Flags theme park.
In the lounge at Mr Keith’s concert, attendees ate dates on gilded couches and prayed towards Mecca. But there were also signs of the changing culture. “I want tequila and dancing and girls and democracy,” said a young man after the show. That might take a bit longer.