DUBAI: Until five years ago, most forms of mass entertainment were frowned upon in Saudi Arabia. No music blared from public concerts, no cinemas awed viewers with movie magic, and gender segregation was the norm in public places.
Fast-forward to present day: Saudi Arabia has gone from having close to zero entertainment venues to being a Middle Eastern hub for cultural events, art exhibitions, and movie screenings.
All of this is a result of Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform plan launched in 2016 to transform the Kingdom socially and economically. The strategy envisions the annual growth of Saudi household spending on entertainment by approximately 2 percent.
In the intervening time, the Saudi entertainment industry has experienced explosive growth. Cinemas are in every city, and men and women can gather and socialize freely.
Major music concerts like MDL Beast entertain hundreds of thousands of people. International film festivals and contemporary art exhibitions are held regularly, and celebrities and performers are frequent visitors to Saudi Arabia.
“We want Saudis to enjoy their country, and we want to bring entertainment to them and become just like the rest of the world,” Kaswara Alkhatib, chief media officer at the Kingdom’s National Events Center, told Arab News.
“Saudis don’t need to travel anymore for their entertainment, and foreigners can come and be entertained in the Kingdom. In today’s world, you cannot be a closed country that does not have entertainment and allow your people to travel outside, and this has been the biggest factor of change influencing the mindset of the Saudis.”
The entertainment sector is one of several forces driving the social and economic changes opening Saudi Arabia up to the world. Vision 2030 envisages and supports the expansion of the entertainment market to SR30 billion ($8 billion).
Saudi Arabia has one of the largest populations in the Middle East and, with around half of its residents under 30, there is a large and growing appetite for entertainment. Hundreds of new cinemas, theme park projects, entertainment cities, and family entertainment centers are set to be built by 2030.
A 2021 study from the US-based Research and Markets said Saudi Arabia’s entertainment market was expected to grow from its current size ($23.77 million in 2020) to $1.17 billion by the end of 2030 — an annual growth rate of 47.65 percent.
“The Saudi entertainment industry moved from zero to hero in a matter of a couple of years,” said Alkhatib. “Before Saudi Seasons, entertainment in Saudi Arabia was not there. Entertainment before meant going to the mall or having dinner or a gathering between family and friends. Before there were very few places a family or friends could go to, with very few opportunities for celebrations or concerts.
“There were no movie theaters, plays, or international concerts. Saudis used to travel outside of Saudi Arabia to attend a concert and attend performances by some of Saudi’s most popular singers like Mohammed Abdu. Concerts were not done in Saudi; they were done outside of Saudi Arabia.”
Now, Saudis go out in droves to watch musical performances. Men, women, and children attend these events, enjoying concerts featuring not just local performers but also artists from abroad.
“Today we are proud that we have these concerts back home. Not only for Saudi performers but also because we have managed to get many international performers and celebrities from the region and the West,” said Alkhatib. “This has definitely been one of the major transformations.”
Saudi Seasons, an initiative launched by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in 2019, plans and holds festivals in various regions to shed light on Saudi culture and heritage and bring entertainment to more Saudis.
The first Saudi Seasons organized 11 festivals throughout the Kingdom, a practice that continues. There have been seasons for Riyadh, Jeddah, the Eastern Province, Taif, Al-Soudah, National Day, Diriyah, AlUla, Hail, Ramadan, and Eid Al-Fitr.
The initiative is led by various Saudi authorities, including the Ministry of Culture, the General Entertainment Authority, the Ministry of Sport, and the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau under the leadership of a committee led by the crown prince.
The Saudi Seasons’ main objectives are to increase spending on tourism in Saudi Arabia, provide more job opportunities, boost business initiatives and tourism in Saudi Arabia, and enhance the quality of life.
It has also generated enormous job opportunities for Saudi youth. The 2019 Jeddah Season alone created 5,000 job opportunities for young men and women.
The Saudi film industry has expanded in tandem with the Kingdom’s rapid strides in entertainment. In the past few years, young filmmakers have returned to the country after years of working abroad to reap the benefits of the Kingdom’s investments in entertainment.
In February 2020, the Ministry of Culture established the Film Commission, a government body dedicated to “developing and organizing the film sector, raising its level of production, marketing Saudi films, encouraging finance and investment and developing content. The commission also supports young creative talent, defines the laws and regulations as well as represents the Kingdom in regional and international forums related to films.”
Other bodies that support film in the Kingdom include Film AlUla and the Misk Foundation, established by the crown prince, to empower Saudi youth and support the social transformation of Saudi Arabia. Misk runs a screenwriting program, among other initiatives, to help filmmakers.
Saad Abutaily, a 29-year-old national who works for Riyadh-based Nebras Films, was born and raised in London, where he lived for most of his life until returning to the Kingdom in 2019.
Abutaily emphasized how much funding there was to help Saudi filmmakers. “Everything is coming back to life now,” he told Arab News.
At Nebras, Abutaily said he regularly witnessed fresh graduates getting aid from the government to produce their films and advance their careers.
In May, it was announced that Saudi Arabia’s expanding Telfaz 11 Studios had made a deal with France’s Easy Riders Films to jointly produce four Saudi films. Abutaily said Nebras was currently producing another movie independently.
Last November, Saudi authorities announced investments totaling $64 billion in the nascent entertainment industry as part of a broader effort to wean the economy off oil and, in due course, become the region’s leading destination for movies.
“In 2019, things started to change. In 2021/2022 the country is totally different,” Abutaily said from Riyadh, where he is based. “I now enjoy my weekends here better than in Cannes and London. There’s so much you can do here now. There are artists, scriptwriters, movie producers, and filmmakers. The list goes on.
“This is what is making it healthy for us to live back in Saudi. We are finally accepted by our government and security, and every few months there is even more change and new announcements.”
Abutaily said it was a great time to be in Saudi Arabia, not just for Saudis but foreigners too. “Music producers are now producing music in Saudi Arabia. Artists, filmmakers, and many others have now come back to the country from the US, UK, and the UAE. They came back when they realized how many new opportunities there were.
“COVID-19 slowed us down, but now things are back on track and in full swing. The culture was always there in Saudi Arabia, but it was very limited. There were just restaurants, malls, and cafes. Now, I see Saudis returning from abroad to go to big public gatherings and shows here.”
Saudi filmmakers are also traveling around the Kingdom more, visiting Abha, AlUla, NEOM, Taif, Jeddah, and the Eastern Province, gaining inspiration from their own country, and shooting films on location in various regions.
“The whole world is curious about the Saudi story,” Mujtaba Saeed, a 35-year-old filmmaker who divides his time between Saudi Arabia and Germany, told Arab News.
“We have a lot of untold stories, and we want to share our human experience with the world. As a filmmaker, we now have a lot of support from the Film Commission established by the Ministry of Culture, which has supported us to tell our story to the world.”
His recent short film “Zawal,” which shows the pandemic from the perspective of a refugee, won the Golden Palm award at the 2022 Saudi Film Festival and was recently awarded the Golden Sail at the Gulf TV and Broadcast Festival in Bahrain.
“We are living a historic moment in Saudi Arabia right now,” Saeed said. “We want to express ourselves, tell our stories, and show the world that we are similar, that our needs and goals are universal.”