Fans flock to first Saudi Comic Con
Jeddah - Saudi Arabia’s first Comic Con exhibition attracted more than 20,000 visitors to a celebration of pop culture, comic books, movies and video games.
Saudi cosplayers, gaming enthusiasts and comic book lovers flocked to the 3-day event, which was organised under the auspices of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority.
Cosplayers depicting characters from the Marvel and DC cinematic universes were on display, along with pop culture icons such as Harry Potter and Captain Jack Sparrow, from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, as well as Star Wars storm troopers.
“This is great,” said Ihab Khalid, who attended Comic Con with his two sons, who were dressed as Iron Man and Superman. “A couple of years ago, we attended the Dubai Comic Con and they have been nagging to go back ever since, so it’s fantastic seeing this here in Jeddah.”
“The minute I stepped in, I couldn’t believe this is happening here,” Fatima Hussein, who sported a Batgirl mask, told CNN. Abdul Rahman Bakhsh, 25, told the network: “When you enter the tent, you forget that you are in Saudi Arabia.”
The mid-February event also provided an opportunity for promising Saudi comic book artists to showcase their work and participate in competitions. Gamers had contests, too, and tested yet-to-be-released titles for Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation consoles.
Besides a cosplay competition, Saudi’s first Comic Con had beatboxing and lip-syncing competitions. Actor Mads Mikkelsen from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and television’s Hannibal participated in a question-and-answer session.
The event did have its restrictions. A news release from the event’s partners, Time Entertainment, said cosplay participants must be free of inappropriate signs or symbols that violate Islamic morals.
The statement said: “Participants must dress decently and never bring any sharp objects or weapons to the exhibition. Boys must not dress up as any feminine characters.”
Segregation of the sexes is the norm in Saudi Arabia and Comic Con had separate entrances for men and women but inside the event was mixed.
A social media campaign by religious conservatives linking the Saudi Comic Con to “devil worship” had no effect on the event’s popularity.
Reacting to the trending hashtag “Comic Con celebrates devil worship”, Majed al-Quaeid wrote on his Twitter account: “These kinds of hashtags make me sick and shows the stupidity of those who created it.”
This is one of the first instances in which the conservative kingdom embraced global popular culture and that is no accident. Saudi Arabia is going through a historic paradigm shift, which is being fuelled by its Vision 2030 economic reform plan.
An important component of the plan is the creation and promotion of a kingdom-based entertainment industry, especially during a time when austerity measures lead people to look for forms of escapism.
In January, live concerts returned to the kingdom after a lengthy absence. Many from the kingdom had been travelling to the United Arab Emirates to attend such events. The concert, also in Jeddah, saw the homecoming of Mohammed Abdo — called the Artist of the Arabs — who performed with a 60-piece Egyptian orchestra.
After decades of rumours and speculation, it appears that movie theatres are coming to the kingdom. The chief executive officer of Arabian Centres, Saudi Arabia’s largest mall operator, recently revealed that shopping malls under development by his firm would have space allocated for cinemas.
“It is new. It has been only a few months since the government has announced that it will allow cinemas in the country and that is probably one of the options most of our new malls will be equipped with — the facility to entertain,” Arabian Centres CEO Khaled al- Jasser told Arabian Business.
General Entertainment Authority CEO Amr al-Madani told Bloomberg News that by 2020 there would be more than 450 clubs providing a variety of cultural activities and events in Saudi Arabia, creating 100,000 jobs.
The stated target is to double household spending on recreation to 6%. That would be higher than 4% the US Labor Department reports that Americans spent on entertainment in 2015.