How an entertainment explosion is driving change, transforming Saudi Arabia – Arab News
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 aims to increase Saudi household spending on cultural and entertainment activities inside the Kingdom to 6 percent. 
In the intervening time, the Saudi entertainment industry has experienced explosive growth. Cinemas are to be found in almost 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.
* 50% of residents are under 30.
* 6% target of household spending on entertainment and cultural activities inside the Kingdom under Vision 2030.
* 80% of current household entertainment budget spent abroad.
* SR30bn projected entertainment market size under Vision 2030.
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.”

DUBAI: The Commission of Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) affirmed its support for Saudi Arabia’s bid to host Expo 2030 in Riyadh. 
The statement issued on Tuesday by ECCAS comes after the president of the commission, Gilberto Da Piedade Verissimo, received Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Qattan, Saudi Arabia’s Royal Court Advisor, in Gabon. 
According to the statement, which was released following the meeting, ECCAS affirmed its “strong support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s hosting the ‘First Saudi-African Summit’ and the ‘Fifth Arab-African Summit’ in Riyadh”. 
During the meeting, Qattan and Verissimo discussed ways of cooperation between Saudi and the ECCAS, opportunities to enhance economic and investment cooperation, and joint coordination in areas of common interest. 
The Gabonese foreign minister, Michael Moussa Adamo, also attended the meeting. 
Advisor Qattan expressed Saudi Arabia’s appreciation for the support received, which reflects the distinguished relations between the Kingdom and ECCAS’s state members.
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s royal court advisor and General Supervisor of King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (Ksrelief) met with the Ambassador of Kuwait to Yemen. 
Kuwaiti ambassador Falah Badah Al-Hajraf expressed his admiration for KSRelief’s ‘distinguished professional level’ in the field of humanitarian aid when he met with the general supervisor of the relief center, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Rabeeah.
RIYADH: More than 50 local and international experts and specialists attended a workshop at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to discuss the implementation of the Saudi Green Initiative’s plans to plant 10 billion trees.
The event was organized by the National Center for the Development of Vegetation Cover and Combating Desertification in cooperation with KAUST’s Center of Desert Agriculture. The participants included representatives of the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, as well as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The workshop considered a number of scientific topics and themes, including agriculture in various environments, scientific methodologies for the cultivation and rehabilitation of land, and the urban factors such as roads, government and commercial buildings, public parks and mosques.
It also looked at mechanisms for the afforestation of cities and the environmentally friendly development of urban environments and green belts using the latest international technologies and expertise.
Participants discussed the role of road networks and railways in afforestation projects and efforts to reduce desertification, along with ways in which abandoned farms can be exploited using recycled water and collected rainwater to help achieve afforestation and food-security goals.
The workshop was part of a Saudi Green Initiative research project to assess the situation in the Kingdom with respect to the afforestation plans, determine future needs, develop processes for field surveys, come up with rules for the development of digital-mapping efforts, and establish a geospatial platform for afforestation across the country.
The aim is to develop a comprehensive strategy for afforestation, and an executive plan to manage partnerships across various sectors and organizations to help achieve the objectives of the Saudi Green Initiative.
RIYADH: Hovering a few feet above the ground, flying weightlessly and defying the laws of gravity is attracting women to practice the art of aerial yoga.
In an aerial yoga class, similar poses to yoga done on the mat are performed, but instead of using your body weight to support yourself, you use a silk hammock suspended from the ceiling.
Sarah Farhoud, a Saudi aerial fitness freelancer and yoga teacher, was introduced to aerial yoga classes while she was in medical school. “I used to go to do yoga and relax, and for a change, I decided to take an aerial class, and I never looked back,” Farhoud told Arab News.
She loved the sport so much that she became a freelance instructor in 2016 and has been taking aerial fitness classes in multiple studios across Riyadh.
The high demand was after 2017 when it was permitted to open licensed ladies’ gyms. I got the TOT (the Training of Trainers) from Cirque Fitness USA. Today, we have 508 certified instructors in aerial hammock, silks, and hoop by aerial arts in Saudi Arabia.
Roa Al-Sahhaf, Aerial yoga instructor
“Girls are interested, and they like the challenge. They trust the hammock, and they do not fear being upside down. They are encouraged to take harder poses and they trust their bodies. I think the new generation is more courageous and excited,” she said.
The hammock is designed to help you increase your flexibility and strength while enabling you to perform more difficult poses without putting additional strain on your shoulders, spine or head.
“If your life is stressful, try aerial yoga as a way to break up your routine and rediscover the joy of being upside down, using the fabric to lift you to the other side, or using it as a swing. I’ve attended many classes where everyone is laughing and giggling because they’re having a good time, and you can allow yourself to take a deep breath and enjoy the moment,” Farhoud said.
She believes that Vision 2030 will encourage more studios to open and make sports more inclusive and accessible for everyone by opening parks and community centers.
Roa Al-Sahhaf, an aerial yoga instructor, was in Paris when she was introduced to aerial yoga and decided to take it back home.
“I tried aerial for the first time in Paris, and when I came back to Saudi Arabia I couldn’t find it anywhere in Jeddah, so I decided to open one in Jeddah. It started as a home studio, and then I started giving classes to other gyms. Eventually, in 2018, I opened my own studio named Aerial Arts in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Sahhaf told Arab News.
Al-Sahhaf noticed that there was a high demand for the sport, but there were not enough instructors.
“The high demand was after 2017 when it was permitted to open licensed ladies’ gyms. I got the TOT (the Training of Trainers) from Cirque Fitness USA. Today, we have 508 certified instructors in aerial hammock, silks, and hoop by aerial arts in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
Al-Sahhaf said that many people enjoy trying new things and that aerial yoga can be more popular than traditional yoga due to its greater difficulty and the enjoyment people gain from it.
“Aerial is like a water sport. It’s good for people who are not flexible or who have roughness in the knees or fragility in the disc. It’s good for people who can’t do any kind of sport because the hammock lifts so much weight off them,” Al-Sahhaf said.
“It’s like doing an exercise with another person, and by the end of the session we always give a meditation (exercise) so they can be tangled around the hammock and meditate,” she said. “It gives them a great feeling.”
Yoga is gaining popularity as a fitness trend in Saudi Arabia, and the Ministry of Commerce approved the teaching and practice of yoga as a sport in the Kingdom in November 2017.
“The facilities have improved a lot in the fields of licensing, support, sponsorship, and we are happy with this,” Al-Sahhaf said.
RIYADH: Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, the general-supervisor of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, held talks with the UN Assistant Secretary General and the Executive Director of the Global Executive Leadership Initiative Panos Moumtzis in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
During the meeting, Al-Rabeeah, who is also an adviser at the Royal Court, was introduced to the Global Executive Leadership Initiative and its role in developing leadership and executive skills in international humanitarian work.
They also discussed aspects of joint cooperation in this field.
Moumtzis praised the work and humanitarian and relief activities that the Kingdom offers through KSrelief, which contribute to alleviating the suffering of the needy and affected people around the world.
The KSrelief chief also held talks with Ahamed Nazeer Zainulabdeen, Sri Lankan minister of environment and foreign investment promotion, to discuss the latest developments in humanitarian and relief projects provided by the Kingdom for the Sri Lankan people, which have so far reached 11 projects in various sectors. The two sides also discussed aspects of cooperation between them to serve humanitarian and relief works in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan minister also praised KSrelief’s distinguished humanitarian work.
Also on Tuesday, Al-Rabeeah met with Kuwait’s ambassador to Yemen Falah Al-Hajraf, who also thanked the center for its relief efforts in the war-torn country.


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