It would be an understatement to say that the traditionally-conservative Kingdom Saudi Arabia has been making headlines lately. Beginning with the lift of the ban on women driving, to the opening of movie theaters after a 35-year-old cinema ban, and ending with the Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman’s statement that the ‘abaya (robe-like dress) and hijab (head-covering) should not be compulsory, the Kingdom’s gradually relaxing regulations promise to change the face of a country long known for its stringent social policies. To add to the mix, Saudi Arabia has announced that the Jeddah Opera House, which is currently under construction, is slated for completion by 2022.
In February of this year, a performance of the Pre-Islamic romantic classic “Antar and Abla” was staged at the Princess Nourah University in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. A female lead played the role of ‘Abla, ‘Antar’s lover in the play, which deals with issues of racism, love, and war, making it the first opera of its kind. The contrast between the performance and the city in which it was staged was unmissable, with Instagram stories of attendees like Tasneem Al-Sultan, a photographer who was commissioned to snap photos for The New York Times, providing a glimpse of what is to come.
The performance of Antar and Abla came after months of easing restrictions on entertainment in the Kingdom. In December, artists like Yanni and hip-hopper Nelly performed for the first time in Saudi Arabia to all-male audiences, and a concert by Egyptian pop icon Tamer Hosny is scheduled for March 30 (although the tickets for the latter come with fine print forbidding dancing and swaying).
The announcement of the Jeddah Opera House comes after Saudi Arabia announced its 2018 entertainment calendar in late February. The General Entertainment Authority‘s Chairman Ahmed Al-Khatib revealed a budget of $64 billion for the entertainment sector over the coming decade. More than 5,000 events in 56 cities in the Kingdom are planned for 2018.
Advances are not just being made in the arts, however; in January of this year, women attended a soccer match for the first time in the Kingdom (the audience was segregated according to gender).
— الهيئة العامة للثقافة (@GCA_Saudi) February 5, 2018
(Here, culture creates change, and defines the horizons of a new era, reads a tweet by General Culture Authority of Saudi Arabia).
Being the biggest Red Sea port and the second largest city in the Kingdom, Jeddah is Saudi’s commercial capital, embracing a population of four million, which makes it an ideal location for the soon-to-be Jeddah Opera House.
Even before civilization hit the port, archaeologists discovered ancient artifacts suggesting that Jeddah was inhabited as early as the Stone Age. That would possibly benefit the Saudi port as a commercial hub looking to attract tourists from around the globe to see monuments and artifacts dating back thousands of years. For its strategic geographical location, even before the arrival of Islam, Jeddah has always served as an important port in the region, acting as a bridge between The Levant and the rest of Asia.
Jeddah Opera House & Saudi’s Cultural Revolution
While the establishment of the Jeddah Opera House may indicate a new cultural beginning for the country, the re-opening of Saudi Arabia’s cinemas may indicate the end of an era of radical Wahhabi influence.
In the 1970s, the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia persuaded the authorities to shut cinemas down, reflecting the rising radical conservative Islamist influence not only on the kingdom but the entire Arab region at the time. However, the only Arab country that has maintained and embraced this radicalism was Saudi Arabia, since it is the home of Islam’s holiest city, the birth of the religion’s prophet and the faith itself, Makkah.
But little did everyone know that a financial doomsday would persuade the Crown Prince to push a flux of change in his reign. According to recent policies – the most revolutionary being the planned IPO of Saudi Aramco – the oil crisis resonating in the sandy region of the Arab Gulf has driven the royal family to rethink its ideologies.
In his efforts to shift from the oil-dependent economy, the prince explored other revenue-generators, so he checked his first card: tourism. Late last year, the 32-year-old Crown Prince announced to the world that a world-class city, NEOM, would become the first Saudi city to accept, to give one example, women wearing swimsuits publicly.
But even within Saudi Arabia, regulations restricting the movement of women are becoming more lax. Women in the Kingdom have traditionally been forbidden to jog in public – until International Women’s Day, 2018, that is. Practicing their newly acquired right, women jogged in a marathon to celebrate their womanhood on the streets of Jeddah – albeit in black ‘abayas.
Conservative and liberal critics split on social media, partly denouncing the reforms and shaming the women for jogging in public and partly denouncing the mandatory wearing of ‘abayas, with liberals arguing that it is difficult to jog or even walk in long silky black gowns that attract the country’s notorious sun.
“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” an American audience watched the Crown Prince say in an interview with CBS television aired on March 18. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black ‘abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
However, unsurprisingly, these “reforms” do not come without criticism. Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said in an interview that conservatives who are against reforms like the construction of the Jeddah Opera House are gradually learning that most Saudis, a majority of whom are under 30, want these changes.
His goal, as chairman to the Kingdom’s Entertainment Authority, is to provide Saudis with entertainment that is “99 percent [like] what is going on in London and New York,” pointing out that that change would not come quickly after decades of cultural conservatism.
“We are winning the argument,” he said, referring to conservatives as the opponents. He added that the majority of Saudis are moderate. “They travel, they go to cinemas, they go to concerts. I am counting on the middle segment, which is about 80 percent of the population.” he said. If conservatives don’t like it, they have the right to stay at home, he concluded.