How a fantasy-world villain is helping to change Saudi Arabia

Recent public entertainment, from comedy to jazz, is bringing a lighter side to the conservative kingdom.
How a fantasy-world villain is helping to change Saudi Arabia
Hero’s welcome the Jeddah Comic Con is part of Saudi Arabia’s push to boost its entertainment sector.
By Michael Jabri-Pickett
Sun 26 Feb 2017 02:20 PM

Nothing more clearly illustrates the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia than the visit of Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

In what is perhaps the greatest sign that changes are happening in the conservative kingdom, Saudi Arabia has held its first Comic Con.

Charles Dance, the 70-year-old British actor who portrays the Shield of Lannisport on HBO’s Game of Thrones, was in the kingdom as part of the festivities. Amazingly, while there were separate entrances for men and women, inside they walked around side-by-side.

But this global event that celebrates the best in comic book heroes and fantasy villains is just the most recent sign the country of 32 million is embracing a new agenda for its people.

In fact, despite fantastic headlines from Dubai with Elon Musk and the Blade Runner-inspired flying vehicles, the past 30 days have belonged to the Saudis.

On February 16, it was announced that the Saudi Stock Exchange, the largest in the Arab world, had elected Sarah Al Suhaimi as its first female chairperson. She will also continue to hold her position as chief executive of investment at NCB Capital bank.

Three days earlier, Saudi Arabia’s largest mall operator, Arabian Centres, revealed the company has allocated space for cinemas in all ten of its new malls under development. Banned in KSA, cinemas will soon be legal.

Two weeks before that, the first “large-scale concert in seven years” occurred in Jeddah, Reuters reported. Thousands of men (women were barred) watched as Mohammed Abdo, Rabeh Sager and Majid Al Muhandis entertained for hours.

Just days before that, Riyadh held its first public concert in 25 years. A jazz performance sold out the 3,300-seat King Fahd Cultural Centre.

These less-than-subtle public events come on the heels of Prince Alwaleed’s Twitter comments in November, when he said it was time for Saudi to look at the economic costs of its women not driving.

And, in April 2016, at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice lost almost all its power when it was announced that its members could now only report any inappropriate activity to police, rather than taking the matter into their own hands.

The question begs to be asked: what is going on in Saudi Arabia?  The answer can be found in the blueprint reform document titled Vision 2030, and with its architect, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud, who is the minister of defence and the son of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Vision 2030 states: “We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available [in Saudi Arabia] do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy”.

Towards this end, late last year, the government formed the General Entertainment Authority, which among other initiatives, is responsible for organising last week’s Comic Con. Its mandate is to look at how to grow the entertainment industry in KSA. Its less-clearly stated objectives seem to be to modernise the country — and to do it quickly.

Saudi Arabia has a responsibility that places the country in a challenging situation. Home to the two holiest sites in Islam, the kingdom holds the world’s second largest oil reserves.

With the price of oil hovering around $50 a barrel, the country must do what it can to help its people see a new way of thinking for long-term prosperity. With about 60 percent of its population younger than 30, the key is to capture this demographic. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed is 31. He is the archetypal citizen the country must reach.

Change happens not with a declaration, nor with a new law, but on the streets and in the cafés. Saudi Arabia recognises this, and is bringing about change with superheroes and women and cinemas and concerts.

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