Fun in the Kingdom: Tourism and entertainment in Saudi Arabia
Young Saudis eager to see improved entertainment at home and hope plans are not blocked due to cultural barriers
Thursday afternoons are the perfect time to drive out of Riyadh up to Thumamah, the national park a few kilometers North of Saudi Arabia’s capital.
Salem, a thirtysomething who is Yemeni but who has lived his entire life in Saudi Arabia, enjoys going out to the desert park for some Arabic coffee and dune bashing, the popular Saudi pastime of off-roading on sand dunes. The Saudi weekend begins on Friday, which means that after work on Thursday, the park is often packed with Saudis seizing the chance to escape the city and relax. “I like to go here every few weeks to drive around on the sand. The winter months are the nicest, in the summer it’s too hot,” explained Salem.
The locals in Riyadh love Thumamah since it is one of the few places to get easy and cheap fun. In Saudi Arabia entertainment can be hard to come by. The Kingdom is known for its strict and conservative social rules that make some activities difficult to be carried out there, complicating tourism development in the country.
The younger generation – 70 per cent of Saudis are under the age of 30 – is growing up with need for other entertainment avenues. As a result, many travel to Bahrain and Dubai during the weekends or during holidays.
“Entertainment and domestic tourism in Saudi Arabia are very expensive if you look at the quality that we are getting,” said Talal, who is in his mid-twenties and works in IT. “Even taking into account the costs of the flight, traveling to another country for a holiday can be cheaper than staying in Saudi.”
Since public entertainment is hard to come by, and many Saudis often stay at home drinking coffee and socializing.
Shopping malls provide a form of entertainment and function as a social hub, but the list of entertainment and tourist activities in the Kingdom is limited.
Two of the notable activities for domestic tourists are Jenadriyah, a two-week annual cultural festival held outside of Riyadh which includes camel races, and Mada'in Saleh, an archeological and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the northeast.
For most Saudis, this is not enough. With fairly little to do and see, they spend a lot of their time and money abroad.
The government of Saudi Arabia has identified this lack of entertainment and is seeking to address it. “We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy,” reads Vision 2030, the roadmap for reform in the country.
Officials recognize the boredom experienced by many Saudis, but they also see the money spent by Saudis abroad as wasted investment opportunities.
Last May, the General Authority for Entertainment was created. There are already several projects in the pipeline, including an agreement with the American company Six Flags to create theme parks in the Kingdom, and there are reported plans to reopen cinemas next year, after nearly all were vanished during recent decades.
Similarly, there has been talk of introducing tourist visas, although no concrete plans exist yet.
These developments have hit home with many young Saudis who are eager to see improved entertainment in the Kingdom and hope the plans do not end with only theme parks and cinemas. “The government should encourage people who are talented to do shows in public. I would like to see free street entertainment during the weekends” said Naif, a twentysomething who works at a university.
Although the plans have been met with enthusiasm, it remains to be seen if the ambitious goals can be achieved.
“The future of entertainment in Saudi Arabia is hard to predict because of several cultural and religious barriers that could hinder its progress,” said Noha, a Saudi woman who had recently returned from a road trip to do archeological sightseeing inside the Kingdom itself. “Only if these barriers are overcome, will we have a chance to compete globally in entertainment and tourism.”