I asked Dr Ahmed Al-Khatib who is in charge of a project that is considered by some as the most difficult in the Saudi government: “Are you confident that you can do this?” His answer was practical; “Come and attend one of our events”.
A week ago, I attended an artistic show in Riyadh and it seems strange that I travelled from Dubai to Riyadh to attend a performance. The theatre had three floors and can accommodate more than 2000 people. It was bustling with liveliness and clamour and the audience was mainly made up of young people who had come to see iLuminate, a New York-based entertainment group. The group put on several exquisite performances. The experiment was a successful one and answered my questions that included “Will people accept these kinds of performances?” and “Will they cater to their tastes?”
Dr Al-Khatib is the chairman of the General Authority for Entertainment and is in charge of introducing and developing entertainment programs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When the Authority was announced, many considered the introduction of entertainment in Saudi Arabia as a task that is inevitably doomed to failure, and this is a justified judgment considering that attempts by both the public and private sectors to implement previous projects ended in failure, with many of them failing before they had even started.
Five months have passed since Dr Al-Khatib was appointed as chairman. Although the legal procedure of establishing the authority and its structure hasn’t been finalised yet, he has announced an ambitious list of events and leisure activities. Some of them have begun to surpass people’s expectations and scepticism.
Do not underestimate this task and its positive and wide ranging effects, especially on the youth who account for more than sixty per cent of the population. Do not underestimate its enormous economic value; Saudis spend in excess of $21 billion dollars whilst on holiday abroad and ten million non-Saudis have nowhere to spend their free time in.
You can imagine how recreational social and artistic activities can change people’s lives. It is not difficult to imagine half a million of Riyadh’s residents travelling to the Eastern Region if they were provided with tourism and entertainment opportunities, better trains and integral services.
Neither is it difficult to fill stadiums, theatres, squares and other recreational facilities with millions of people and citizens each month considering that Saudi residents and nationals fill recreational facilities in the countries to which they travel to around the world.
If this is achieved, it may change us for the better, reduce the vacuum and congestion and stop the huge financial waste. It will give life a more beautiful meaning. People confine their dreams to travelling in order to escape the hard life here. Even attending matches in the kingdom is a tough trip, and one must be a fanatic in order to bear the hardship of going there and the lack of services, poor management of stadiums and permanent chaos. When I attend a match in London, it feels like a real outing and is enjoyable for those who love it despite the high cost of tickets and terrible crowding.
Attending the recent show in Riyadh was a personal and important experience. Although it is a small step, it is a historic one and it is a positive transition. It may seem to be a marginal and even trivial issue to some because they are not aware of its importance for a community that needs to open its doors to the sun. Dr Ahmed is of the view that “We are giving people additional options so that they are not forced to run to the airport in order to travel abroad during every holiday. Our country deserves a lot from us”.