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Sweeping changes add ‘fun’ to Saudi life

September 18, 2018 1:33 pm

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On a packed night at Al Comedy Club in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, as Saudi Arabia was preparing to allow women to drive, a performer asked the women in the audience what cars they intended to buy.

“Maserati,” one called out. “Mercedes,” said another.

“Just like that? First car a Maserati?” the male comedian fired back. “You ask a guy what he wants to get, he’ll say a Hyundai. That’s because he’s paying for it!”

Servers in flowing robes and red caps navigated the aisles of the small theatre, passing out bags of popcorn and chocolate bars to the young audience members, many of whom were taking pictures with their cellphones to share on Instagram and Snapchat.

Six years ago, just getting permission to open the club was a milestone, according to the owner, Yasser Bakr. Live stand-up comedy didn’t exist in the country, and bureaucrats were distrustful of anything new.

“They didn’t know what it was,” Bakr said. “So you don’t only have to ask for a permit, you also have to explain what it is, and why is this guy on stage talking about his childhood and his mother.”

Now a new government agency that regulates nightlife and entertainment – aptly named the General Entertainment Authority – is offering him financing and asking how it can help Al Comedy Club expand to more cities.

“It’s almost a 180-degree shift,” Bakr said.

The change is part of the sweeping modernisation drive led by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who wants to offer the country’s 32 million people something that was never a high priority here: fun.

Thousands of comic book and pop culture fans, many of them in costumes and face paint, flocked to Jeddah’s second Comic-Con festival in March.

The first new cinema in more than 30 years opened in the capital, Riyadh, in April with a gala screening of the Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther.” The same month, the crown prince and his father, King Salman, broke ground on a new entertainment complex outside Riyadh – described as 2 1/2 times the size of Disney World – that will offer auto racing, indoor ski slopes, water parks and a Six Flags theme park.

The Greek-born pianist and composer Yanni performed in the kingdom in December. Cirque du Soleil is set to stage its first show there this month.

The new offerings are part of an ambitious plan, dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, to diversify an oil-dependent economy, lure outside investment and create jobs for the growing number of young people entering the workforce.

Saudis spend billions of dollars every year on leisure activities abroad. By expanding the country’s entertainment options, the government hopes to entice citizens to spend more of that money at home and draw more visitors.

The injection of fun could also help blunt public frustration over painful new austerity measures, including taxes and hikes in domestic fuel prices, which used to be heavily subsidised. The slump in world crude prices since 2014 has produced yawning budget deficits, hurting the country’s ability to provide the government jobs and lavish benefits to which many Saudis have grown accustomed.

Overseeing a massive public and private investment in the entertainment sector is the General Entertainment Authority, which was created in May 2016 and plans to stage more than 5,000 events this year, double the number in 2017.

Dozens of new businesses have sprung up to meet the demand for more shows and festivals. The authority offers them funding and training. “We’re like the one-stop shop,” said Faisal Bafarat, the authority’s chief executive. “You just apply to us. We get you all these approvals.”

The applications are submitted online and can usually be processed within 48 hours, he said. The authority will then assign a project manager to ensure the event is of a high standard and conforms with the kingdom’s regulations and values.

The easing of the kingdom’s rigid social strictures has won the crown prince enthusiastic support among Saudis under the age of 30, who make up about two-thirds of the population. Many were exposed to world-class entertainment while travelling or studying abroad and are thrilled to be able to enjoy similar events at home.

At Al Comedy Club, long lines form every Thursday night.

The government recently certified the club as a venue for families, meaning that men and women there no longer have to enter through separate doors or sit in separate sections.

Certain topics remain largely off-limits, notably politics, religion and what Bakr refers to as “plus-18 content.”

At a recent show, Bakr poked fun at the country’s dour image.

“Too much smiling will get you into trouble in Saudi Arabia,” he said grimly. “McDonald’s Happy Meals in Saudi Arabia are not called Happy Meals. They are called ‘Meals for Small People’ — with no toy. Toys are so much fun.”

The crowd burst into laughter.

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