RIYADH: Opera made its debut in Riyadh at the weekend with a classic Arabian love story, as bands from Beirut to New Orleans performed at the kingdom’s first-ever jazz festival.
Long known for its ultra-conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging programme of social reforms that includes boosting sports and entertainment and allowing women to drive from June.
Music lovers had their first taste of jazz when a three-day festival opened on Thursday at the Riyadh Intercontinental hotel, showcasing performers such as regional darling Chady Nashef of Lebanon.
The opera “Antar and Abla” — a legendary story of love between an Arab warrior and his cousin — also drew crowds on Friday and Saturday in Riyadh’s Princess Noura University.
Such events would have been unimaginable a few years ago, when the much-feared religious police wielded authority to shut down concerts as they curbed any mixing of genders.
Since the appointment in June of 32-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the throne, Saudi Arabia has launched an image overhaul, lifting bans on entertainment, including cinemas and public music festivals, and scaling back restrictions on women.
The reforms are largely motivated by economics and are part of a strategy to diversify the economy away from oil and create jobs for young Saudis.
Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) last week announced it will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.
Saudi Arabia’s first opera house is set to open in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, the GEA said, without giving a date.
Some Saudi Arabians took to social media at the weekend to criticise what they saw as wasteful spending, as the kingdom reels from high inflation, unemployment and subsidy cuts.
Saudi Arabia has posted budget shortfalls since the 2014 crash in oil prices. The kingdom has since withdrawn some $250 billion from its financial reserves to finance the deficit.