A king­dom learns to laugh

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - ALEXAN­DRA ZAVIS

On a packed night at Al Com­edy Club in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, as Saudi Ara­bia was pre­par­ing to al­low women to drive, a performer asked the women in the au­di­ence what cars they in­tended to buy. “Maserati,” one called out. “Mercedes,” said an­other. “Just like that? First car a Maserati?” the male co­me­dian fired back. “You ask a guy what he wants to get, he’ll say a Hyundai. That’s be­cause he’s pay­ing for it!”

Servers in flow­ing robes and red caps nav­i­gated the aisles of the small theatre, pass­ing out bags of pop­corn and choco­late bars to the young au­di­ence mem­bers, many of whom were tak­ing pic­tures with their cell­phones to share on In­sta­gram and Snapchat.

Six years ago, just get­ting per­mis­sion to open the club was a mile­stone, ac­cord­ing to the owner, Yaser Bakr. Live standup com­edy didn’t ex­ist in the coun­try.

“They didn’t know what it was,” Bakr said. “So you don’t only have to ask for a per­mit, you also have to ex­plain what it is, and why is this guy on stage talk­ing about his child­hood and his mother.”

Now a new gov­ern­ment agency that reg­u­lates nightlife and en­ter­tain­ment is of­fer­ing him fi­nanc­ing and ask­ing how it can help Al Com­edy Club ex­pand to more cities.

The change is part of a sweep­ing mod­ern­iza­tion drive led by Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who wants to of­fer the coun­try’s 32 mil­lion peo­ple some­thing that was never a high pri­or­ity here: fun.

Saudi Ara­bia has long been re­garded as one of the most aus­tere Is­lamic na­tions, where movie the­atres were mostly for­bid­den, and the feared re­li­gious po­lice en­forced strict gen­der seg­re­ga­tion. The rules, how­ever, are be­ing re­laxed as the 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne pushes his agenda and hard-line cler­ics lose some of their power.

The first new cinema in more than 30 years opened in the cap­i­tal, Riyadh, in April with a gala screen­ing of Black Pan­ther. The same month, the prince and his fa­ther, King Sal­man, broke ground on an en­ter­tain­ment com­plex that will of­fer auto rac­ing, in­door ski slopes, wa­ter parks and a Six Flags theme park.

The new of­fer­ings are part of an am­bi­tious plan, dubbed Saudi Vi­sion 2030, to diver­sify an oil-de­pen­dent econ­omy, lure out­side in­vest­ment and cre­ate jobs for young peo­ple. Saudis spend bil­lions of dol­lars ev­ery year on leisure ac­tiv­i­ties abroad. The gov­ern­ment hopes to en­tice cit­i­zens to spend more of that money at home and draw more vis­i­tors. The in­jec­tion of fun could also help blunt pub­lic frus­tra­tion over aus­ter­ity mea­sures, in­clud­ing taxes and hikes in do­mes­tic fuel prices.

The eas­ing of the rigid so­cial stric­tures has won the crown prince en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port among Saudis un­der the age of 30, who make up about two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion. Many were ex­posed to world-class en­ter­tain­ment while trav­el­ling or study­ing abroad and are thrilled to be able to en­joy sim­i­lar events at home.

“Be­fore it felt like a group of con­ser­va­tive, ma­li­cious peo­ple was con­trol­ling the life of ev­ery­one else,” said Esra Al­hab­shi, 25. “That isn’t the case any­more.”

AHMED YOSRI TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

A mod­ern­iza­tion drive has brought movie the­atres, com­edy clubs and much more fun to Saudi Ara­bia.

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