Saudi entertainment chief sacking underscores reform challenges

The uproar brings up questions about the Saudi drive to modernise and open the country as part of its reform programme.
Saturday 23/06/2018
Balancing act. Members of circus troupe Cirque Eloize perform in a show organised by the Saudi Entertainment Authority in Riyadh, on January 18. (Reuters)
Balancing act. Members of circus troupe Cirque Eloize perform in a show organised by the Saudi Entertainment Authority in Riyadh, on January 18. (Reuters)

LONDON - The firing of the head of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority (GEA), the government body tasked with creating a domestic entertainment sector, indicates Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform agenda has hit an obstacle.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud relieved Ahmed bin Aqeel al-Khatib of his duties as GEA chairman of the board. No reason was given for the dismissal but reports in the Saudi media said Khatib was sacked over what was deemed as “inappropriate” attire worn by female members of a Russian circus troupe performing in Riyadh over the Eid holidays.

The Arabic hashtag “Nude Russians in Riyadh” began trending on June 16, with users sharing images showing female circus performers clad in tight leotards during an event at Princess Nourah bint Abdul Rahman University. Two days later, Khatib was fired.

“We must hold on to our Islamic values and principles… Dismissing (Khatib) from his post does not mean he should not be held accountable,” wrote one Saudi Twitter user.

A report in the Saudi online news site Sabq said GEA has been asked numerous times whether it has guidelines and a supervisory mechanism when contracting foreign companies.

Khatib told Sabq that the “pressures of work” at the authority and “the large number of projects in the pipeline” made it difficult to follow up on whether foreign companies were adhering to the guidelines.

The uproar brings up questions about the Saudi drive to modernise and open the country as part of its reform programme, which is intended to diversify the Saudi economy away from the energy sector. The creation of GEA and the development of a domestic entertainment industry were intended to create jobs and stimulate local tourism.

However, as the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest sites, the kingdom finds itself trying to balance its drive for modernisation and placating conservative segments of society. The sociological changes that come with the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan, which endorses more employment opportunities for women and investments in entertainment ventures, might prove too much for some.

The GEA has had to deal with several controversies since its inception two years ago. In February 2017, after a video emerged showing Saudi men and women attending a music event near Riyadh, conservatives voiced their displeasure, leading to a debate on the merits of the GEA.

“What the entertainment authority is doing is in the interests of all of us. It is working to bring out the talent and imagination of our children, God bless them,” a Saudi Twitter user said at the time.

However, milestone events such as women participating in National Day celebrations for the first time and the opening of the first cinema in more than 35 years drew a backlash from conservatives.

These are the challenges facing the kingdom and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is spearheading the Saudi reform agenda. Although the head of the entertainment authority appears to have been a casualty of the reform process, the government has put its foot down in several instances to achieve a sort of balance.

One watershed moment was the curtailing of the powers of the religious police to arrest individuals over various types of behaviour. The move was widely celebrated among the Saudi populace.

Last September, after the government announced that the female driving ban would be lifted, a man was arrested after he posted a video online threatening to attack women drivers. Several politically active clerics have also been detained.

However, it remains to be seen if that is enough to push Crown Prince Mohammed’s agenda forward.

“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe,” the crown prince said last October. “Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today and immediately.”