Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority is laying the groundwork for a diverse entertainment sector
As Saudi Arabia undergoes its drastic transformation, an economic boost is on a way from a source that even a few years ago was unthinkable: entertainment.
Just last week, Turki Al Sheikh, the chairman of the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced that, for the first time, restaurants and cafes will be able to apply for entertainment licenses that will soon see them hosting comedy and musical shows.
The ultimate aim, he said, is to turn Saudi Arabia into one of the world’s top 10 entertainment destinations. This ambitious strategy will see the country hold a wide array of events, ranging from e-gaming tournaments to auto ‘drifting’ competitions, magic shows and even a Madame Tussauds wax museum.
Notably, Saudi officials have said that sports have a significant role to play in the kingdom’s wider plans, with Al Sheikh saying that the GEA is exploring the possibility of hosting an NBA game and revealing plans to host an exhibition football game featuring the likes of players David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane.
The world got a taste of what Saudi Arabia’s vision could ultimately become in December 2018, when thousands of international fans joined Saudi nationals for a Formula E-race in Saudi Arabia, which – in addition to the economic benefits of inbound guests – served to highlight Saudi history through the nearby Ad Diriyah site. In a taste of things to come, the event also sold-out concerts such as Enrique Iglesias and David Guetta.
Importantly, entertainment forms a key pillar of Saudi Vision 2030, which noted that the sector “is indispensable to our quality of life.” The economic benefits will come in several forms – perhaps the most important of which is in encouraging Saudi nationals to spend money in the kingdom rather than abroad.
A 2018 report from Flanders Investment and Trade noted that more than 4.5 million Saudis travel abroad annually, collectively spending nearly $25bn on movies and amusement park visits in nearby Dubai or Bahrain, or even further afield. If even a portion of those travellers opt to instead remain in Saudi Arabia they would breathe life into the fledgling entertainment sector.
To this end, Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in projects that will keep Saudi nationals entertained at home, while at the same time creating investment and employment opportunitie in the country.
The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, for example, has said that its combined entertainment projects – which will eventually be able to cater to more than 50 million visitors each year – will provide 22,000 direct jobs and contribute $2.13bn to Saudi GDP by 2030.
Additionally, a forecast from PwC estimated that by 2030, total cinema revenue is expected to reach $1.5bn, based on the assumption that by then the kingdom will boast 2,600 cinema screens, or 6.6 screens per inhabitant. The move comes as Saudi Arabia lifts a 30-year ban on movie theatres.
“The cinema industry in the GCC is coming of age with Saudi Arabia – the largest Arab economy – opening the market means massive opportunity for all industry stakeholders,” Leila Masinaei, the managing director of Great Mind Events said in November.”
In his remarks last week, Al Sheikh was adamant that the country’s entertainment drive will not be solely comprised of imported offerings. Instead, he said that the kingdom is planning a wide range of culturally relevant options with a local flavour, such as Holy Quran recitation contests and a Hijra Journey contest in which participants will be rewarded with prizes of $266,620 for re-enacting the Prophet Mohammed’s journey between Makkah and Madinah.
“Competitions are an important element of entertainment,” he said. “The most important will take place during Ramadan and will be of an Islamic nature, with the supervision of Islamic scholars…our traditions and values will be respected.”