Women al­lowed in Saudi sta­dium for first time

87th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions to pro­mote na­tional pride and push for more re­forms

Sunday Tribune - - WORLD -

SAUDI Ara­bia is cel­e­brat­ing the 87th an­niver­sary of its found­ing this week­end with an un­prece­dented ar­ray of con­certs and per­for­mances, in­clud­ing al­low­ing women into King Fahd In­ter­na­tional Sta­dium in Riyadh for a Satur­day evening op­eretta – a first in the con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic king­dom.

The fes­tiv­i­ties are part of a govern­ment bid to boost na­tional pride and im­prove the qual­ity of life for Saudis.

Also on of­fer is a con­cert in the Red Sea city of Jed­dah fea­tur­ing 11 Arab mu­si­cians, plus fire­works, air ac­ro­bat­ics and tra­di­tional folk dance shows.

The events are the lat­est en­ter­tain­ment spon­sored by the govern­ment as part of the Vi­sion 2030 re­form pro­gramme launched two years ago to di­ver­sify the econ­omy away from oil, cre­ate whole new sec­tors to em­ploy young cit­i­zens and open up Saudis’ clois­tered life­styles.

How­ever, in a coun­try that ad­heres to the aus­tere Wah­habi brand of Sunni Is­lam, which bans gen­der mix­ing, con­certs and cin­e­mas, the plan’s seem­ingly an­o­dyne goals to em­power women, pro­mote sports and in­vest in en­ter­tain­ment have been crit­i­cised.

Saudi rulers are also start­ing to re­form areas once the ex­clu­sive do­main of the clergy, such as ed­u­ca­tion and the law, and have pro­moted el­e­ments of na­tional iden­tity that have no re­li­gious com­po­nent, or pre-date Is­lam.

They have in­creased Na­tional Day cel­e­bra­tions that were pre­vi­ously at­tacked by cler­ics as un­der­min­ing re­li­gious feel­ing, and are pro­mot­ing her­itage sites, such as Na­batean rock tem­ples, once seen as em­bar­rass­ing in the land of Is­lam.

Saudi flags and green bill­boards, of­ten bear­ing the face of King Sal­man and his son Crown Prince Mo­hammed, have gone up across Riyadh this week, and at night sky­scrapers are flooded in green light – the na­tional colour.

Com­pa­nies from tele­coms oper­a­tors to fur­ni­ture stores have launched pa­tri­otic-themed mar­ket­ing cam­paigns of­fer­ing dis­counts for the hol­i­day week­end.

The Gen­eral En­ter­tain­ment Au­thor­ity, the govern­ment agency or­gan­is­ing the Na­tional Day fes­tiv­i­ties, ex­pects some 1.5 mil­lion Saudis to at­tend events in 17 cities over four days.

Vi­sion 2030 re­forms are in­tended to cap­ture up to a quar­ter of the $20 bil­lion (R265bn) spent over­seas by Saudis, who are ac­cus­tomed to trav­el­ling abroad to see shows and visit amuse­ment parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or fur­ther afield.

This week­end’s events, though, are free to the pub­lic. – Reuters

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