By Rob L. Wagner
22 May 2016
Jeddah – The big question on every Saudi’s mind following the formation of the General Authority for Entertainment is whether Saudi Arabia will allow cinemas, which have been banned from the kingdom for more than 30 years.
The issue remains a mystery but General Authority members are actively discussing public screenings of family-oriented films and sports events, according to a person familiar with the new authority’s meetings who spoke on the condition that his name not be published because he is not authorised to release details.
“They want to start with outdoor screenings but they don’t want to call it ‘cinema’ yet,” the source said. “They will show family movies and football matches, that sort of thing, but it hasn’t been confirmed.”
Staging public screenings of films in cinemas has been rumoured for years. Malls, since about 2004, have been constructed with extra space — now used for bowling alleys and indoor go-kart tracks — to be transformed when cinemas are allowed to open. Family-oriented animated films are occasionally screened outdoors in public areas in Jeddah and Riyadh but not on a regular basis.
The new government body’s discussions are the first tangible evidence that some form of cinema entertainment is under consideration, even if at the preliminary stage.
Muhammad Murad, who works with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in Taif to publicise events to attract tourists, said he welcomes the entertainment authority but he added that details of its role are vague.
“It’s not clear what kind of entertainment they are talking about,” Murad said. “Most people will think that cinemas will be allowed and that other things that have been banned before will be opened again in Saudi Arabia.”
Fawaz Kurdi, public relations and sales executive for Destination KSA, which publishes lifestyle magazines in Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province, said Destination has been involved in helping the organisation identify what kind of activities are available to Saudis and expatriates.
“We have lots of local events in technology, fashion, culture and food among many other activities,” Kurdi said.
Jou Pabalate, editor of Destination Riyadh, said the authority is establishing an activity calendar. “They want to know what is the ideal entertainment for the week,” Pabalate said.
That type of entertainment includes cultural activities, cycling, horseback riding, art exhibits, day-trips and, on some level, live entertainment.
Saudi Arabia, particularly in more liberal cities such as Jeddah, has a vibrant underground entertainment network. Private stage plays are routinely performed in north Jeddah, often in a private residence or a low-key restaurant venue. Guests are invited via word-of-mouth or tightly controlled distribution of flyers. Concerts and comedy acts are available throughout the city for select, discreet audiences.
The authority’s work has indicated that it hopes to bring some entertainment out of the shadows and offered through public announcements in newspapers and magazines.
The motive is financial. Most entertainment will generate revenue and keep entertainment dollars inside Saudi Arabia. An estimated 1.54 million Saudis visited the United Arab Emirates in 2015. Given that Saudi Arabia’s 2016 fiscal budget has a $98 billion deficit, the Saudi government is eager to generate revenue by encouraging Saudis to spend their tourism money at home.
Felton Alrefaei, a public relations account executive at the Jeddah-based LeGate, which specialises in accommodations for haj and umrah services, said that a well-publicised entertainment programme approved by the Saudi government would be a boon for foreign and domestic tourists.
“It will be a very brave move to attract more tourists,” Alrefaei said. “That spending will be kept inside Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi entertainment authority follows the creation earlier this year of the Ministry of Happiness, supervised by Minister Ohood al- Roumi, in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE government established the ministry to streamline government services to UAE citizens who routinely deal with government entities. By making government more efficient the ministry hopes to increase customer satisfaction, foster positivity and create public happiness.
The Saudi programme differs significantly. Although Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz promises more government transparency, the entertainment authority is less about happiness and more about generating revenue. At the same time, the government is responding to Saudis’ complaints that entertainment options in the kingdom are limited to restaurant dining and visiting malls.
Some Saudis remain sceptical about the new agency and have been taking to Twitter with humour.
One Saudi wrote: “Yesterday I was feeling depressed while walking in Tahlia Street so the Entertainment Authority guys grabbed me and started tickling me until I passed out from laughing!”
Another Saudi on Twitter wrote: “The Authority should punish offenders by forcing them to push swings in parks… It is punishment and entertainment at the same time.”