Saudi entertainment industry begins to take shape

Riyadh plans to spend $13.3 billion by 2020 to promote entertainment, health, sports and education.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) attend an event to launch the Qiddiya project in Riyadh,  on April 28.  (Saudi Royal Palace)
Mega city. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) attend an event to launch the Qiddiya project in Riyadh, on April 28. (Saudi Royal Palace)

LONDON - Change in Saudi Arabia has been fuelled by initiatives stemming from the Vision 2030 reform programme, including the creation of culturally alerting entertainment and recreational industry.

In less than a year, the kingdom has started scheduling music concerts, lifted a 35-year ban on movie theatres and allowed women to join male counterparts at live sporting events. There have also been two popular comic con events.

These are events that would have been unthinkable in the conservative kingdom a few years ago but economic realities — and potential revenues — spurred cultural change as Riyadh looks to limit its dependence on oil.

Riyadh plans to spend $13.3 billion by 2020 to promote entertainment, health, sports and education, General Entertainment Authority Chairman Ahmed al-Khatib said. The “Quality of Life” initiative aims to generate 300,000 jobs. The Saudi government is expected to pay about 60% of the costs, Khatib told the Reuters news agency.

“The entire benefit from this big spending will be for the private sector and this supports the 2030 Vision that strengthens the role of the private sector,” he said.

Perhaps the most ambitious project is the Qiddiya project, launched by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Qiddiya, an entertainment, sports and cultural destination covering 334 sq.km with infrastructure cost of up to $8 billion, will be the region’s largest tourist and entertainment destination.

Project CEO Michael Reininger said Qiddiya would create 57,000 jobs by 2030, Al Riyadh newspaper reported.

“Today, we invite investors, creators and operators from around the world to explore what a one-of-a-kind project like Qiddiya has to offer,” Reininger said during groundbreaking ceremonies April 28. “We will seek the best to help us, as we invent a new entertainment experience for all residents and visitors to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi officials say first-phase construction of the project should be completed by 2022 and will include theme parks, motorsport facilities and a safari area.

Government statistics estimate that approximately 7 million Saudis travel abroad for vacationing annually so Riyadh decided to target that lucrative market with domestic entertainment initiatives.

“About two-thirds of the kingdom’s population is under the age of 35. There is a great need for Qiddiya project to provide them with entertainment,” said project Secretary-General Fahd bin Abdullah Tounsi. “The project will save about $30 billion, which will be used to develop the domestic economy and create job opportunities for Saudi youths.”

The Qiddiya project will include recreational options and sports and cultural activities, including toy cities, recreation centres and sports facilities that could host world-class competitions, training academies, desert and asphalt tracks for motorsports, water and snow, and outdoor adventure activities, safari and nature experiences as well as historical, cultural and scientific activities, the Saudi press agency stated.

In May 2016, the kingdom set up the General Authority for Entertainment and tasked it with developing an entertainment industry. One of its first endeavours was signing a deal with Six Flags Entertainment Corporation. Then Six Flags CEO John Duffey told Al Arabiya at the time that his company was proud to enter an agreement to provide entertainment facilities for the kingdom. Six Flags is to build a theme park costing $500 million.

The kingdom’s second cinema was opened in Riyadh by VOX Cinemas, a Middle East cinema chain managed by the Majid al-Futtaim Group based in the United Arab Emirates. The four-screen complex opened May 2 in Riyadh. The Red Sea city of Jeddah is expected to be VOX’s next theatre opening.

Saudi Arabia plans to open 30-40 cinemas in 15 cities within five years under a deal with AMC Entertainment Holdings. Saudi official set a goal of 100 cinemas with more than 2,500 screens by 2030.

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