Cinema, concerts, fashion underway
Prince eyes modern Saudi Arabia
Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has stirred the ultra conservative oil superpower with economic, social and religious reforms, overseeing the most fundamental transformation in the modern history of the Gulf nation.
The heir to the Saudi throne is keen to change the austere image of Saudi Arabia through a series of moves such as giving women the right to drive and the opening of
movie theatres, despite opposition from religious hardliners. These are some of the more recent measures initiated in the kingdom:
In a historic decision, Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women drivers. Accordingly, women will be allowed to drive from June this year under a royal decree that was issued in September 2017.
The move has sparked waves of euphoria and optimism among the women of the Islamic nation, which was the only country to ban women from driving. Neither Islamic law nor Saudi traffic law explicitly prohibits women from driving, but they were not issued licences and were detained if they attempted to drive.
The decision to allow women to drive is considered a part of the crown prince's social and economic reform plan known as Vision 2030, which aims at increasing women's participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030 in a bid to wean oil-rich Saudi Arabia off its dependence on resource by stimulating growth in the private sector and promoting tourism.
The Gulf kingdom lifted its public ban on commercial cinemas and is readying for a rush of cinema operators eager to turn the Middle Eastern country into a nation of moviegoers. The country's first movie theater in more than 35 years will open on April 18 by AMC Theatres in Riyadh, with plans for up to 100 theatres in some 25 Saudi cities by 2030.
These movie theatres will not be segregated by gender like most other public places in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom. Saudi Arabia had some cinemas in the 1970s but its powerful clerics closed them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. In 2017, the government said it would lift the ban as part of Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to transform society.
Questions though remain about what kinds of movies Saudi Arabia will tolerate.
In another first, the Arab nation this week kicked off its first-ever fashion week with designs by Middle Eastern, Brazilian, US and Russian designers, as well as shows by internationally renowned labels Roberto Cavalli and Jean Paul Gaultier.
In line with Saudi cultural norms and rules on gender segregation, the catwalks are open to women-only and no outside cameras are allowed to film inside. Still, the event marks the latest turnaround for a country that for decades has been ruled by ultraconservative dogma. While the kingdom has held fashion shows in the past, they have mostly been tied to charitable causes and did not include big names in the industry.
The crown prince's intent to transform the image of his country was evident during his recent trip to Paris. According to an agreement signed during his visit, the Arab country will employ French expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra, The deal will see the Paris Opera company help the Islamic nation produce its own classical music and shows.
The kingdom also announced it would enter short films at the Cannes cinema festival for the first time.
The heir to the Saudi throne has in recent days visited several countries, including the United States, to project a more moderate vision of his country, which is often associated in the West with exporting jihadist ideology.
As part of these reforms, the kingdom has allowed concerts, including mixed-sex gigs. Last year, the nations hosted the first concert by a female performer-Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji-in the country's history.
In February, Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.
But while times are changing, certain rules such as "Dancing is strictly prohibited" during a concert on March 30 underline the balancing act the Saudi government must perform as it takes steps towards liberalisation in a society where certain sections may not be as receptive to the idea.
In an interview with CBS television, Mohammed bin Salman said women in his country need not wear head cover or the black abaya - the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety - as long as their attire is "decent and respectful."
"The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men," the Saudi heir said.
"This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear."