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Saudi circus ‘nudity’: Entertainment chief is fired

Video circulating on social media appeared to show a female performer in a tight costume, drawing outrage from Saudi arch-conservatives
The pro-government Sabq news website said al-Khatib was dismissed for a circus in Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia sacked the head of its entertainment authority on Monday, state media said, following a conservative backlash against a circus that featured women wearing figure-hugging costumes.

"Ahmad al-Khatib, chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, has been removed from his position," the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) tweeted citing a royal decree, without giving a reason.

The pro-government Sabq news website said Khatib was dismissed over a controversial circus performance in Riyadh, which included women wearing "indecent clothes".

A video circulating on social media appeared to show a female performer in a tight pink costume, drawing outrage from Saudi arch-conservatives.

The video posted by Ali Shihabi, founder of the pro-Saudi think tank Arabia Foundation, included a cutaway shot from the circus and monologues from several men who emphasised the need to uphold Islamic principles.

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Khatib's sacking comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reforms that have ended decades-long bans on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts.

The vigorous backlash against what was widely identified online as a Russian circus underscores the challenges facing the prince as he seeks to modernise a country steeped in conservatism.

The petro-state has some of the world's toughest restrictions on women, who are required to wear body-shrouding abaya robes in public.

Female fitness centre shut

In April, Saudi sports authorities shut down a female fitness centre in Riyadh over a contentious promotional video that appeared to show a woman in tight gym clothes.

Defending the decision, Saud al-Qahtani, a media adviser to the royal court, said at the time that the kingdom was on the path of "moderation without moral breakdown".

Later that month, the sports authority apologised over a promotional video of a WWE event that showed scantily clad female wrestlers drawing euphoric cheers from men and women alike.

Ahmed al-Khatib was appointed in 2016 as chairman of the GEA, the government body which oversees entertainment events in the country, including the National Day festivities and hosting Cirque de Soleil in September.

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The body plays an important role in introducing change to Saudi Arabia as bin Salman rolls out reforms to wean the economy off oil exports and open up its society.

In February, the GEA announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64bn in the sector in the coming decade.

The gradual relaxing of gender segregation involved in expanding some entertainment options in the country has risked causing 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.

Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai and Bahrain.

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