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Saudi Arabia will stage more than 5,000 shows in 2018, double the number of last year, as it tries to shake off traditional image

US rapper Nelly performed in Jeddah in December, albeit to a male-only crowd (AFP)
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Friday 23 February 2018 9:42 UTC
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Saudi Arabia will stage more than 5,000 shows, festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number from last year, as it tries to shake off its conservative image in a drive to keep tourist dollars at home and lure in visitors.

The state wants to capture as much as a quarter of the $20bn currently spent overseas every year by Saudis seeking entertainment, and is also lifting a ban on cinemas and putting on shows by Western artists.

US rapper Nelly performed in Jeddah in December, albeit to a men-only crowd, and Greek musician Yanni played to a mixed-gender audience.

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.

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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 240bn riyals ($64bn), including an opera house to be completed around 2022.

That will contribute 18bn riyals to annual GDP and 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.

"And I promise you that we will reverse this migration, and people from Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain will come to Saudi."

Still, on Thursday night the minister of culture and information said Khatib's opera plans were an infringement of the role of the General Authority for Culture, a separate government body, the Saudi Press Agency said.

The entertainment plans are largely motivated by economics, part of a reform programme to diversify the economy away from oil and create jobs for young Saudis.

The Vision 2030 plan aims to increase household spending on cultural and entertainment events inside the kingdom to 6 percent by 2030 from a current 2.9 percent.

"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 percent of the calendar (events) are for families."

Earlier in February, a senior Saudi cleric said the country's women should not have to wear the loose-fitting abaya robe to shroud their bodies in public - in the latest sign of a liberalisation drive.

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"More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas," said Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars - the kingdom's highest religious body.

"So we should not force people to wear abayas," he said on a television broadcast.

Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, requires them to wear the garment by law.

The government has not said whether it will change the law, but this was the first such comment by a senior religious figure.

In 2016, a prominent Saudi cleric, Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, said homosexuality should not be criminalised.

“Even though homosexuality is considered a sin in all the Semitic holy books, it does not require any punishment in this world," al-Ouda said in an interview with the Swedish Sydsvenskan newspaper, adding that homosexuals may be punished "after death".

"One of the fundamentals of Islam is man's freedom to act as he wants," he added.

However, al-Ouda is one of the clerics who was arrested last year in the crackdown under Mohammed bin Salman.

He was hospitalised last month after going on hunger strike in protest at being held in solitary confinement for several months, Amnesty International reported.