$64 Billion: The Price of Fun

Saudi Arabia looks to pivot a conservative culture to embrace entertainment hoping to revive a weakening economy. How much of its identity is it willing to give up?

Image: A pilgrim pauses to pray before the Kaaba during the Hajj in Mecca from kpbs.org

Surrounded by nations like Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, Saudi Arabia extends through most of the Arabian Peninsula. Its western coastline is bordered by the Red Sea. Within its borders sit the holiest cities in Islam, Medina, and Mecca. Then, to the east are oil fields discovered in 1938, that turned the nation into one of unimaginable wealth. As a result, the young nation is one that has been known for its oil, its religious significance, but also its conservatism. 

The oil and religious reverence make sense, but perhaps many assume that conservatism would follow naturally from a nation so steeped in religious history. In a way it is, but in another way, it has more to do with the complexities of geography, family, and power. 

Wahhabi is an Islamic reform movement established by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’ in the 18th century in the Najd region of central Arabia. This particular movement was, in simple terms, a fundamentalist approach to the Muslim faith. Wahhab was a traveler and teacher who taught that the veneration of saints was not grounded in the Quran and he rejected religious innovation of all kinds. In many ways, his teachings were an ultraconservative version of Hanbali doctrine- the belief that there should be strict adherence to the Quran and a deep suspicion of analogizing or intellectualizing the holy book. This way of life, this perspective on tradition and culture was the one embraced by the Saud family in 1774. That same family would ultimately found and rule Saudi Arabia to this day with these beliefs entombed as the cornerstone of Saudi life.

Given the hard stance against religious innovation and a strong preference for ancient traditions and ancient ways, it is no wonder that culturally, Saudi Arabia, is as it is. A nation whose founding fathers ascribe to a Wahhabi perspective can be nothing but conservative. In fact, this was the whole reason for the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 500 men stormed the mosque claiming that they must cleanse the nation of Western influence. Why? Saudi Arabia had been modernizing. 

For years King Faisal had been instituting reforms like launching a television station and creating schools for girls. As a result of these reforms, the religious elite felt their control of society slipping. Protests erupted in response and ultimately, the King was assassinated for his role in pushing the country towards ‘Western’ ideals. So when the Saud royal family was faced with this new crisis, a direct challenge that they could not be trusted to protect one of the holiest of sites, they quickly rolled back the reforms. 

That wasn’t all, a strict religious code came into effect and the religious authorities were given more power to police and enforce moral code in Saudi Arabia. Once again, things were back to a traditional equilibrium. At least, for a time.

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Image: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman from www.aljazeera.com

The Upstart Prince

It would seem that a nation that has been defined by its location, its resources, and its pact with an ultraconservative religious sect couldn’t change, right? Too many things seem to have fixed the identity of Saudi Arabia. However, with the monarchy in transition, there was suddenly a change in the air.  

King Abdullah (the reigning monarch from 2005-2015) would pass away at 90 years old from pneumonia. As the last surviving son of King Abdulaziz, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, King Salman then ascended to the throne in January 2015. With him, he elevated his son, Mohammad bin Salman also known as MBS. Initially, MBS was appointed Defense Minister and Secretary-General of the Royal Court. Then later he was further elevated to Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the heir apparent. Now, the father and son duo spent the next few years consolidating power between themselves to pave the way for one of the most audacious PR campaigns of recent history: A ‘moderate’ Saudi Arabia which would become the epicenter of entertainment in the East. 

Yes, the nation where women could not drive, could not travel unchaperoned, and many dressed in burqas. The Saudi Arabia you hear of where religious authorities patrol the streets punishing those they deem immoral. A country where genders could not mix in public. Where there was little in the way of entertainment. That Saudi Arabia was about to become fun. 

The cultural pivot was not only drastic, but it was also strange. Given everything we knew in the West about Saudi Arabia, why would this royal duo take the country through a religious and cultural 180? You’d have to consider the circumstances of the last few years. 

Following the 2014 oil crisis, which saw a record decline in the oil market, the Saudi economy plummeted from $320 billion to $130 billion, losing nearly half of the government’s revenue almost overnight. Although the nation enjoyed some level of religious tourism due to the yearly pilgrimage of devout Muslims to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia’s economy is almost exclusively driven by oil. 

Worse still, since the country discovered oil, the relationship between the royal family and its citizens became incredibly co-dependent. With that increased revenue, the government was able to fund jobs for young people coming out of school. Public sector jobs accounted for 60% of employed youth. Not only that, but public sector jobs were also far more lucrative financially than private-sector positions. Unsurprisingly, the private sector continued to decline because of its inability to attract quality candidates. Foreign workers came in to fill gaps both at the high end, where domestically educated Saudi citizens skill sets were a poor match and at the low end, filling domestic roles that locals chose not to work. 

The government-subsidized electricity, the internet, and housing. So much of the cost of living in Saudi Arabia was defrayed by the government because of the significant gains from the oil industry. But as we know, all resources come to an end. All booms must face a bust. So when 2014 arrived, and oil prices crashed, the Saudi government saw its budget slashed, and its obligations to its citizens loom. On top of that, the Arab Spring was in high gear in nearby countries, and unhappy citizens were making themselves heard. 

In a bid to avoid a similar situation, the Saudi government pulled their reserves to continue the rentier state the citizens had grown accustomed to. Even as that happened, the writing was on the wall. Something would have to change and fast. Even though oil prices rebounded, they would never return to the $100+ a barrel rates that brought wealth to the nation before 2014. It was time to examine a different approach. 

The monarch realized that a diversified economy and a robust private sector is the only way to save Saudi Arabia. There was no way oil prices would ever return to their previous prices. Even worse, the conditioned dependence citizens had on the public sector was becoming harder and harder to maintain. With the entertainment and media sector’s growth in other countries and its significant reliance on human capital, it made sense to pick an industry that would capitalize on bringing people to Saudi Arabia’s shores. If people want to come to the country to visit Mecca and Medina, maybe they would also come to visit other parts of Saudi Arabia if they could give them a reason to stick around. The question, of course, was: how would it happen? 

Image from qiddiya.com

A Plan for Fun -Vision 2030

The country would have to break up with its ultra-religious past. In April 2016, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was stripped of its arresting powers. Then the highest religious body in the country, the Council of Senior Scholars, saw an influx of more moderate clerics by December of the same year. One by one, the King and MBS eliminated anyone who would or could stand in the way of their social and economic agendas.

Once that was taken care of, the groundwork was laid for MBS to announce a massive all-hands-on-deck campaign dubbed Vision 2030. Officially the program seeks to capitalize on three things: its central role as custodian of the Holy Mosques, its financial strength as a potential investment powerhouse, and its geographical position at the crossroads of three continents. The three overarching objectives for the program are to build a more vibrant society, build a thriving economy, and strengthen government capacity. Unofficially, many of the goals look to drive as much economic activity through the private sector as possible by encouraging entrepreneurship, foreign and local investment into the private sector and turning Saudi Arabia’s appeal as a religious tourist destination into a global tourist destination. 

That is how we ended up with entertainment. Sitting at the cross-section of tourism, hospitality, economic activity, and culture entertainment is a fitting industry to do the significant heavy lifting for the Saudi Arabian economy. So, despite poor entertainment facilities, the absence of any kind of entertainment infrastructure, and the nation-wide closure of cinemas, Saudi Arabia intended to become a top 10 global entertainment destination in the world, and the top 4 in Asia, by 2030. So what exactly is the price of fun? $64 billion dollars over the next 10 years. 

The new Saudi Arabia will be largely unrecognizable if the Vision 2030 plan is accomplished. For example, Qiddiya Entertainment City will be the capital of entertainment. Complete with the world’s largest Six Flags theme park, world-class waterpark, a 20,000 seat clifftop stadium, ‘Creative village’, and technology incubator, tourists would be spoiled for options. Do you want luxury? Head over to the Red Sea project for pristine beaches, scuba diving, a natural marine life preserve, water sports, and luxury resorts all accessible through a dedicated airport. Looking for a more nature-driven experience? Stop by Al Ula for hiking, desert campsites, cultural archaeological sites, and natural preserves. Each city expansion or development has its own focused offerings and a particular kind of tourist in mind. Every project, in every region of Saudi Arabia, will essentially build out entertainment real estate and provide thousands of events to locals, as well as tourists. 

One innovative program Saudi Arabia launched in March of 2019, called Saudi Seasons, is a traveling festival that takes visitors from city to city experiencing the different cultures, traditions, and historical offerings of the country. To support the increase in foreign tourism, the government implemented an e-visa process for 49 different countries in September of 2019. As a result, Saudi Seasons saw participation by 3 million visitors in its first iteration. Not only was the success of the first-year critical from a revenue standpoint, but it also stood as a positive indication that jobs created by activity in the entertainment sector could be sustained long term. 

So one day, the country was overrun by the religious authorities then, by 2017, music concerts were allowed, mixed-gender public events were held and the cinemas reopened after 35 years. If the royals have their way, a lot more would be coming down the pipeline. Or it would have until COVID-19 happened. 

Image of Saudi Arabian women by Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Culture, Religion and Modernization Square off

Before the pandemic hit, MBS was on an aggressive worldwide tour, wooing potential private sector investors to bolster the budget for the project. This way, the government would not bear the cost of development alone, and the private sector would get a necessary injection of global participation and funding to position the projects for success. 

Unfortunately, foreign investors have become uneasy about getting in bed with Saudi Arabia. Many doubt that the goals of the conservative nation-state are genuine. In October of 2018, Journalist and critic of the Saudi government, Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul by Saudi officials.  A number of those officials have been linked to the Crown Prince. The incident was so shocking it reverberated globally, chilling many potential relationships. To make matters worse, in January of 2019 there were very public crackdowns on women’s rights activists, clerics, and intellectuals. 

So despite the cited goals on the Vision 2030 website- the free and open society where women were to be empowered and education was to lead to greater discourse- the actions of the country’s government seem to be moving in a different direction. While concert halls and movie theaters are being built and plans are drawn up for international airports, a general global hush seems to have fallen over Saudi Arabia. 

From the outside, the PR machine shows local events happening, some 2,000 in 2019 alone. However, no dancing or swaying is allowed at concerts. Despite the allowance of gender mixing, one concert headlined by Nelly only allowed men to attend. While it seems that some moral restrictions have lifted locally, not all have. 

For individuals traveling from different countries looking to partake in the Saudi experience, how much escapism can exist within the strict cultural expectations of women, and the limitations on certain kinds of conduct? When men and women dancing together still causes challenges, could there ever be a time where nightclubs, bars, and pubs exist in Saudi Arabia? Would the government police foreigners’ ability to sway to the music at a concert, or only their own citizens?

How long before partial enforcement causes issues with local youth? The beauty and danger of entertainment is that it opens minds to possibilities. Creativity has a way of taking on a life of its own. Young people with access to social media, movies from all over the world, and improved education systems will take all that information in and it will necessarily change their perspectives. As a result, the culture will continue to change.

Even though their voices are silent, many believe that this regime has made a deal with the devil, allowing modernization and Western influences to flood the nation. To them, there is no difference between rapid cultural erosion and using entertainment for economic gain. The friction between the old and potentially new Saudi Arabia is palpable and one must wonder whether the conservative traditions of old will give way to a society where entertainment exists not only to lift a weakening economy but also an expression of the human condition. 

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  1. If you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your online brand, it is only right to invest just as much energy in protecting it. Download my free ebook for 5 tips you need to implement today: D is for Digital- Protect your Digital Brand

  2. This report was significant in my understanding of the Vision 2030 plan. If you want a deeper dive into the program, the policies and the agenda, please take a look here.

    1. Here is the official Vision 2030 website

  3. Published June of this year, this report provides a very timely evaluation of the project and some recommendations for how Saudi Arabia might course correct. 

  4. Learn more about the Saudi-Wahhabi relationship and the impact it has on the society and culture in Saudi Arabia in this article

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