Saudi surge for style and culture

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is presently buzzing with the strings and sounds of its Annual Music Festival, called the Riyad Season, which opened last October and is scheduled to continue until March 22. The festival is planned to present about seventy concerts across various districts in the capital. The number of music festivals as revealed by Princess Haifa bint Mohammad Al Saud, the Kingdom’s Assistant Minister, were to rise by 500–600 percent as compared to 101 concerts held in 2019. She also explained that the growing emphasis on music was part of its potential to promote the tourism industry which is now being influenced by music and lifestyles as it was once driven by the passions for nature and culture. One fourth of the population of the UK and the US, ‘before Covid-19 travelled to at least one music festival a year indicating that music was at the very heart of the tourism industry’. These trends and decisions mostly followed a special three day and night XP Music Conference in the capital in December 2021.
Pop stars like the US rapper Pitbull, the French, DJ David Guetta, Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias, Egyptian singers Mohamed Ramadan and Tamer Hosny, the Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan and groups like the One Republic and the Black-Eyed Peas have already enthralled the crowds ranging from sixty to seventy thousand. Guetta actually had also performed a year earlier before this biggest and loudest MDL Beast or Soundstorm festival, in the Arab world, and emerged as the official ambassador for the burgeoning Saudi music industry. He was actually somewhat sceptical before his first performance and wondered if the audience would understand him but was soon stunned to see the crowd chanting his songs even before he struck the beat. Salman Khan similarly was honoured with the Personality of the Year Award.
The idea about the mammoth potential of music and the need to develop it as an organic industry, as explained by the planners, emerged at the electric car racing championship event held on 26–27th February, 2021 at Diriyah, a town in the north-west of Riyadh. This racing gala, titled ePrix FE, in itself was one of the 26 great global championship events scheduled from here to Vancouver around the planet. The concerts at the car racing and the related events garnered a new realization about the indigenous as well as an international appetite to relish Saudi culture. The craze for car racing and other popular sports contests, have been yet another growing Saudi forte. Its first female driver also participated in the F4 British Championship. The decisions to impart a new dimension to tourism by extending it from its traditional religious domain, were made and the visa constraints were accordingly relaxed to facilitate the visitors.
Coupled with car rallies have been other sporting galas like soccer, basketball and golf tournaments to heavyweight boxing bouts and equestrian contests. In soccer, Saudi Arabia not only has about ninety national teams in various professional and divisional categories, but even went global and spent over US$409 million to acquire 80 percent of the English Premier League’s Newcastle United Football Club. It also formed its first female football team in 2018 and a year after, the Equestrian Union also allowed women to compete with men on equal footing. Some of its women showjumpers even made a stunning exhibition of their skills at the 90th National Day in 2020. The kingdom is to host a global equestrian gala in 2024. Saudi teams have been similarly showing their mettle in the World Olympics and have already prompted the women participation in the home clubs as a prerequisite for this participation.
Yet the most spectacular stride has been in the movie and cinematic sector that had been banned for over 35 years before being revived in 2018 to avail the billion-dollar bonanza and amp up the entertainment, economic and social development. One hundred and thirty-eight films from 60 countries were screened at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December 2021. The next round of the festival is scheduled this June. A Development Investment Company (DIEC) was founded to create one thousand direct jobs by 2020 and add about a billion SAR to the GDP. More than 45 cinemas are to be opened up to 2030. The incentive has thrilled the local émigré as well as the international talent, corporation and investors. Joint production with the Hollywood, British and Indian movie moguls is being envisaged. The step has especially inspired the local artists and the diaspora that had left the country as the constraints against the film sector became too unbearable. Some enthusiasts have already asserted that there is rather more interest and a bigger market for movies made by women with a greater emphasis on the women’s problems.
These developments are a vital feature of Vision 2030, the agenda launched by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The year 2030 incidentally also marks the century of foundation of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has been investing heavily in sports and entertainment in a bid to attract foreign investment and diversify the country’s economy necessitated by the eclipsing petroleum market and supplies. The thrust on entertainment, however, is also necessitated by the predominance of youth as about 70 percent of the Saudi population is below 30 years of age. This sprawl is presently being extensively supported or rather supercharged by the government to spur the popular taste and is being encouraged to be gradually taken up by the private sector magnates and the creative talent and initiative. This spectacular surge, is also expected to soften the rather stern Saudi treatment of dissent and criticism that has often vexed many western human rights circles.

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