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Fri 24 Jan 2020 01:06 AM

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Why Saudi Arabia's successful entertainment drive comes at a cost

The government's 'Riyadh Season', which continues until March, generated millions in revenue over two months from its October start

Why Saudi Arabia's successful entertainment drive comes at a cost

As couples on their way to a lavish dinner strolled past palm trees hung with chandeliers in a historic quarter of Riyadh, the recent belt-tightening downturn in Saudi Arabia’s economy seemed a world away.

Inside a replica of Carbone, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in New York, diners ordered Wagyu beef steaks for 500 riyals ($133), just over the minimum spend required to secure a reservation weeks in advance. Nearby, musicians played in perfumed courtyards as women driving golf carts delivered customers to a selection of pop-up restaurants from around the world.

The evening toward the scheduled end of the “Riyadh Season” – a government-sponsored flurry of food offerings, concerts, sporting events and carnivals – encapsulated much of what Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman wants his kingdom to embrace.

Since rising to become de facto leader, he’s sought to soften its reputation as an ultra-conservative Islamic state propped up by oil, rolling out historic decisions including easing restrictions on live music, cinema and dress, and opening to foreign tourists.

But the extravaganza, and the debate it triggered, highlighted twin challenges for authorities as they look to promote broad acceptance of the changes: ensuring the less well-off aren’t alienated by lifestyle choices they can’t afford and making them richer so their spending can fuel a nascent economic recovery.

“There was a rush toward entertainment in a way that distanced many people – the have-nots,” said Saad Albazei, a literature professor and a former member of the consultative Shura Council. He supports the transformation plan but worries the high prices of some of the new events could exclude people.

Consumer spending is recovering after faltering as the slump in oil prices from 2014 forced the government to trim generous subsidies, slowed the economy and made Saudis watch their wallets.

Private investment

Officials said they’re pulling back on government spending to let private investment take the lead. The non-oil economy grew 4.3 percent annually in the third quarter of last year, the fastest since 2014.  Riyadh Season is part of the pitch. It generated SAR1bn  ($266.5m) in revenue over two months from its mid-October start, attracting 10 million visitors, though it hasn’t made a profit for the government.

“If we got anything out of Riyadh Season, it’s that demand is there, social acceptance is there,” said Faisal Bafarat, CEO of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA). “Businessmen are coming and saying we want to invest.”

Bafarat said the government has far exceeded its targets for Riyadh Season. The main attraction, a sprawling complex called “Riyadh Boulevard,” was built with a capacity of 35,000 people; in the first 24 hours, 1.2 million showed up, he said.

“It was really a shock to all of us,” Bafarat said. Events there will now continue until March, way beyond the slated December end-date.

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