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