Saudi Arabia to build opera house in bid to shed conservative image, lure tourists

Saudi Arabia, a state where concerts are banned and music is prohibited in restaurants and stores, says construction will begin on the kingdom's first-ever opera house as it moves to shake off its conservative image and lure in tourist dollars.

Announcement follows a December show by rapper Nelly to all-men crowd, musician Yanni to mix-gender group

The pier at the Jeddah Waterfront, in Jeddah. The city serves as gateway for millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world and is seen as more liberal and ethnically diverse than the landlocked capital of Riyadh. (Reem Baeshen/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia, a state where concerts are banned and music is prohibited in restaurants and stores, says construction will begin on the kingdom's first-ever opera house as it moves to shake off its conservative image and lure in tourist dollars. 

The kingdom has been relaxing its decades-old restrictions on entertainment and fun, as part of a wider effort spearheaded by the young crown prince to boost the economy and increase household spending domestically. 

It says it wants to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas by Saudis seeking entertainment abroad, lifting a ban on cinemas and putting on shows by Western artists. 

The state says it will stage more than 5,000 shows, festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year. And next month, the kingdom is planning to open the country's first movie theatre after a more than 35-year-ban.

'The bridge is starting to reverse'

Thursday's announcement says the opera house will be built in the Red Sea city of Jeddah on the kingdom's western coast. The city, a gateway for millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world, is seen as more liberal and ethnically diverse than the landlocked capital of Riyadh.

In December, U.S. rapper Nelly performed in Jeddah, albeit to a men-only crowd, and Greek musician Yanni played to a 
mixed-gender audience.
Last year the country announced plans to develop resorts on some 50 islands off the Red Sea coast and an entertainment city south of Riyadh featuring golf courses, car racing tracks and a Six Flags theme park. (Reem Baeshen/Reuters)

The gradual relaxing of gender segregation risks a backlash from religious conservatives but public objections to a wider 
programme of reforms have been more muted in recent months after several critics were arrested.

At an event to launch the 2018 entertainment calendar, Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the state-run General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said infrastructure investments over the next decade would reach $64 billion, including the opera house to be completed around 2022.

That will generate 224,000 new jobs by 2030, the GEA said.
 
"The bridge is starting to reverse," Khatib said, referring to the causeway linking Saudi Arabia with more liberal Bahrain where many Saudis flock for weekend getaways.

Cinemas expected to open in March

"And I promise you that we will reverse this migration, and people from Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain will come to Saudi."
 
The entertainment plans are largely motivated by economics, part of a reform programme to diversify the economy from oil and create new sectors to employ young Saudis.

The Vision 2030 plan aims to increase household spending on cultural and entertainment events inside the kingdom to six per cent by 2030 from 2.9 per cent.

"We are bringing the most exciting and famous events to Saudi Arabia this year," Khatib told Reuters in an interview, 
adding that state-sponsored entertainment events would be staged in 56 cities.

"We are creating new local events with local content," he said. "Almost 80 per cent of the calendar (events) are for families."

Saudi Arabia lifted its decades-old ban on cinemas late last year, with plans for regional and global chains to open more 
than 300 movie theatres by 2030. The first cinemas are expected to start showing films from March.
 
Last year the country announced plans to develop resorts on some 50 islands off the Red Sea coast and an entertainment city south of Riyadh featuring golf courses, car racing tracks and a Six Flags theme park. 

With files from Reuters