Saudi Arabia to spend billions to develop entertainment sector | Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has announced plans to spend billions building new venues and flying into Western acts, in a total overhaul of its entertainment sector that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

Long known for its ultra-conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a vast program of social and economic reforms driven by its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

At a glitzy press conference in Riyadh on Thursday, General Entertainment Authority (GEA) chief Ahmad bin Aqeel al-Khatib told reporters that the kingdom would invest $64 billion in its entertainment sector over the of the next decade.

“We are already building the infrastructure,” Khatib said, adding that the land had been opened for an opera house.

He said hundreds of new companies had sprung up over the past year, registering licenses to take advantage of the fledgling industry.

“God willing, you will see real change by 2020,” the entertainment chief said, adding that more than 5,000 events are planned for the coming year.

Funding for new entertainment infrastructure and offerings would come from government and the private sector, he said.

Behind Khatib, a screen highlighted the names of international actors such as Maroon 5, Andrea Bocelli and Cirque du Soleil.

Neither a breakdown of how the money would be spent nor a timeline for the cultural program was provided.

But that follows a string of events over the past few months, including concerts, a Comic-Con festival and a mixed National Day celebration that had people in the streets dancing to electronic music for the first time. time.

Authorities also announced plans to lift a decades-old ban on cinemas this year, with around 300 expected to open by 2030.

GEA senior official Faisal Bafrat said the past year has already seen exceptional development in the entertainment sector – more than 2,000 events involving 100,000 volunteers and 150 small and medium-sized businesses were held in 2017 .

The new opening, which includes plans to allow women to drive from June this year, has been hailed by some as a crucial liberalization of Saudi society.

Critics, however, pointed to continued restrictions, particularly for women who remain under a strict ‘guardianship’ system that gives male relatives significant control over their lives.

Yet even that could change.

With the lifting of the driving ban on the horizon, Riyadh announced on Sunday that women can now open their own businesses without the consent of their husbands or male relatives.

The reforms are part of Prince Mohammed’s ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ program, which aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy as it recovers from falling energy prices, and the entertainment sector is seen as a a potential source of growth.

Saudis spend billions each year on movies and visits to amusement parks in neighboring tourist hubs of Dubai and Bahrain, accessible by land causeway.

Khatib is committed to reversing this trend.

“I went to Bahrain. The bridge is being knocked down,” he said, adding that Bahraini nationals are now coming to Saudi Arabia for events – accounting for 10% of ticket sales in recent months.

The aim to keep Saudis – more than half of whom are under 25 – spending their disposable income at home is part of a wider campaign called “Don’t Travel”.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is struggling to cope with persistent budget deficits that began in 2014 when crude prices fell.

The kingdom has withdrawn about $250 billion from its financial reserves over the past four years.

The authorities also raised fuel prices, introduced a value-added tax, and reduced subsidies in an effort to reduce costs and increase non-oil revenue.

The change has been painful for many Saudis used to a generous welfare system.

In December, the government announced a budget with record spending as it seeks to stimulate growth.