Saudi Arabia, which normally strictly restricts all forms of music, dance and theatre, witnessed what could be termed an entertainment revolution last Thursday when New York based theatrical group iLuminate took to the stage in Riyadh.
In a country without public cinemas or theatres calling the pumping hip hop beats of ILuminate show a rarity is an understatement. It is probably the first indication that doors to the entertainment landscape in Saudi Arabia may finally be creaking open.
In a further demonstration that times are changing, there was no segregation of genders at the show. Hundreds of young men and women sat side-by-side inside the convention hall at Princess Noura Bint Abdul Rahman University, a campus exclusively for women.
The iLuminate performance saw dancers on a darkened stage in electrified glow-in-the dark suits, tell stories of urban America against the thumping backdrop of its beats.
In a clear signal that sands are shifting in the conservative nation, Ahmad Al Khateeb, who heads the kingdom’s General Authority for Entertainment said more shows would follow. The authority has lined up WWE wrestling, Arabs Got Talent performances, a food festival, comedy, Monster Jam motor sports and other events in the coming weeks.
Conservatives in Saudi Arabia who frown upon cinema, music, dance and other stage performances, have not been able to stop the hordes of citizens who regularly visit neighboring Bahrain or Dubai to fulfill their entertainment needs.
The project to open up the kingdom to tourism and entertainment is the brainchild of the young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. He is the driving force behind Vision 2030, an economic and social diversification plan which he released in April to wean the kingdom off oil.
Among the wide-ranging goals of Vision 2030 is development of tourism and entertainment. “We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents,” Vision 2030 acknowledges.
The creator of iLuminate, Miral Kotb, said it was an honor to bring “such a different type of theatre and art to this culture” where the audience was so receptive. Entertainment-starved citizens and expatriates were among the youthful audience who spent between 50 and 900 riyals for tickets to attend the six Riyadh performances of iLuminate which now moves to Jeddah.