Kingdom's reform drive irks hard-line conservatives

The first professional women’s wrestling match in Riyadh took place October 31 and sparked mixed reactions.
Sunday 17/11/2019
A visitor takes pictures of posters of Hollywood movie stars during a screening at the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre in Riyadh. (AP)
The change continues. A visitor takes pictures of posters of Hollywood movie stars during a screening at the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre in Riyadh. (AP)

LONDON - Reforms set in motion in Saudi Arabia the past few years seem to be moving at a pace too disconcerting for some Saudis, specifically among hard-line conservative segments. An incident in Riyadh sparked fears that palpable change in the kingdom could result in violence.

Three foreign actors were attacked by a spectator during a performance in November at the King Abdullah Park Theatre. A Yemeni man residing in Saudi Arabia allegedly stabbed the performers during the musical play and was apprehended.

Al Ekhbariya television broadcast video of the attack, showing a man jumping onto the stage and lunging at the performers. The actors suffered “superficial wounds,” the Saudi state-owned SPA news agency reported.

Authorities are yet to reveal a motive for the attack, whether it was in protest of the war in Yemen or the suspect’s opposition to Saudi Arabia’s growing entertainment industry and openness to the world.

The King Abdullah Park Theatre is among venues involved in the 2-month-long “Riyadh Season,” an arts and entertainment festival that is part of the government’s push to open the kingdom to tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.

In line with the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan, Riyadh established the General Authority for Entertainment, which was tasked with creating an entertainment sector. In a few years, the kingdom hosted its own comic-con, allowed movie theatres to operate and staged concerts by global acts such as Mariah Carey, 50 Cent and K-pop sensation BTS.

Despite indications that the changes enjoyed wide popular support, some reforms did not sit well with hard-line conservatives.

In October, Saudi security arrested a hard-line Salafist preacher and a tribal chief, both highly influential in their communities, alleging they were trying to undermine the reform drive, especially as it pertains to entertainment and tourism.

Video on social media showed the Salafist preacher strongly criticising what he described as “allowing fools to spread vice in Muslim societies and they are met with silence and inaction.”

Using hard-line Islamic terminology, the imam urged Muslim societies to observe the tenet of “the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.”

The tribal chief was said to oppose new regulations allowing granting tourist visas to nationals of 49 countries. Posting on Twitter, he warned that “enemies of the homeland” might enter Saudi Arabia under the guise of tourism. He called for the creation of a special “tourist police force and another for entertainment.”

He also called on the health authority to ensure foreign tourists entering the kingdom are “free of diseases and contagious viruses.”

The first professional women’s wrestling match in Riyadh took place October 31 and sparked mixed reactions.

“Women’s wrestling in the land of the holy sites and the Prophet of God (Mohammad). Is this possible? How can you be so easily depraved?… O Muslims step in, speak up and reject what is happening,” tweeted @Mrbrary, warning that, if Muslims do not reject such events, “the worst is yet to come.”

The kingdom’s reform drive also appears to be moving at a pace that some government agencies are having trouble keeping up with.

Thomson Reuters reported that, at a time Riyadh was trying to promote tolerance and attract tourists, a promotional video posted by the kingdom’s Presidency of State Security, which has since been deleted, described feminism as an extremist ideology, alongside atheism and homosexuality.

A report in Al Watan newspaper stated that punishment for feminism could include “flogging and imprisonment.”

In a statement, issued November 12, the Saudi Human Rights Commission insisted “feminism is not criminalised in Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom affords great importance to women’s rights.” The statement stressed that women’s rights were a priority under Saudi Vision 2030.

Saudi State Security, which issued the controversial clip, said video producers “were unsuccessful in preparing the video, given the many errors in defining extremism and this shows that those who created and shared it acted alone,” the official Saudi Press Agency stated.

20