Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030: Clerics Will Fall in Line

Mohammed Alkhereiji

London — Unlike its Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, which has a thriving leisure and entertainment sector that attracts millions of tourists annually, Saudi Arabia has been blessed — and handicapped — with being considered the capital of the Muslim religion.
That is the challenge facing Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. He is the architect behind Vision 2030, a plan designed to wean the kingdom’s economy off its oil dependency while creating jobs, stimulating the private sector and, consequently, modernising Saudi Arabia.
An important component of the plan is the creation and promotion of a kingdom-based entertainment industry, especially during a time of austerity measures when people tend to look for forms of escapism. However, in a society known for its conservatism, the sociological changes that come with the plan, which endorses more employment opportunities for women and investments in entertainment ventures now alien to the kingdom, might prove a bit too much for some.
Prince Mohammed has put together a multipart strategy to deal with any backlash from the conservative religious establishment that might oppose a path towards further modernisation, a recent report inForeign Affairs magazine stated.
Prince Mohammed, who also heads the kingdom’s Council of Economic and Development Affairs, said only a small percentage of Saudi religious scholars would be “too dogmatic to be reasoned with”. He said any incitement or violence would be met with “isolation and other punitive measures”.
The deputy crown prince also told the magazine that more than half of the scholars who make up the religious establishment “can be converted through dialogue and the rest either have no interest or are not in a position to cause any serious problems”.
Last May, the kingdom set up the General Authority for Entertainment, tasked with putting together an entertainment industry from scratch. One of its first endeavours was signing a deal with the Six Flags Entertainment Corporation. Six Flags Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and President John M. Duffey told the Al Arabiya news channel, that his company was proud to enter this agreement to provide entertainment facilities for the kingdom, with a theme park that will cost $500 million.
“We share Saudi Arabia’s vision to bringing entertainment to the country,” Duffey said.
As a prequel, entertainment offerings have been picking up in the kingdom. In November, a variety show sponsored by the entertainment authority took place in King Abdullah Economic City and a motor sports and music show drew a sold-out crowd. Riyadh recently was the site of a World Wrestling Entertainment event.
Speaking to Bloomberg News, General Entertainment Authority CEO Amr AlMadani said that, by 2020, there would be more than 450 clubs providing a variety of cultural activities and events in Saudi Arabia, creating 100,000 jobs. The target is to double household spending on recreation to 6%. That would be higher than 4% the US Labor Department reports that Americans spent on entertainment in 2015.
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul- Aziz ibn Abdullah al-Sheikh, known for his conservative views and aversion of entertainment, seems to have softened his tone. During a question-and-answer session on his weekly television programme With the Grand Mufti, Sheikh was asked about plans of the entertainment authority. “These things will be dealt with wisely, God willing,” he replied.
Another caller, who mentioned the entertainment authority’s plans for establishing a local film industry and producing concerts, asked whether it was just a matter of time before such events would take place near the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
“My brother, the kingdom lives in security and stability, and all praise and thanks be to God for that, and then thanks to our government, which is acting according to divine jurisprudence based on what pleases God,” Sheikh said.
“These issues will be dealt with wisely, God willing, and I hope that we agree to follow the truth and that what is put forward benefits the ummah and I hope that what we hear is good, God willing.”
Mohammed Alkhereiji
is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.
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