For three decades, an extremist mindset had dominated Saudi lifestyle, seized control of its social milieu, banished the legitimacy of art and brought an end to all forms of musical, theatrical and sports entertainment.
Concerts were absent from the scene for nearly a decade, until a bold decision was taken to create an entertainment body that drew up a special calendar of events catering to all tastes and ages from children to adults. Distinguished musicians featured in this schedule.
Al-Rahabneh played in Saudi Arabia, as did the internationally acclaimed musician Yanni — who presented his most beautiful tracks to large audiences. Cheb Khalid also performed in the country. All of them considered performing in Saudi Arabia a highlight in their artistic careers. The Sports Authority received a shot in the arm when the Saudi team qualified for the FIFA World Cup, amongst a cross-section of the world’s top players.
The revival of cinemas
All these developments coincide with the decision to issue licenses for cinemas in Saudi Arabia, many of which have remained vacant since the late 70s at Aramco and various sports clubs in Riyadh, Jeddah, Taiif and Buraidah. In his book The Magic Lantern, Khaled Rabii writes: “In the 1970s, there was a cinema in Taiifin, an old Ottoman style building that was the meeting point for families” (p. 11).
Cinemas were not discontinued from sports clubs until the late 1970s. There is a well-known story narrated by Khalid Al-Bassam in his book Ya Zaman Al Khalij about the visit of King Abdul Aziz to the Bahrain Theater.
The community deserves to have a fully developed and well-respected entertainment agenda that caters to everybody’s tastes and music is an essential part of that entertainmentFahad Suleiman Shoqiran
The story reads as follows: “As part of the hospitality shown by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa toward His Majesty and the Princes, the Grand Court of Sheikh Hamad told the Bahrain Theater Department that it is reserving two shows on Saturday night for the Royals and that no tickets should therefore be sold to the public. His Majesty King Abdul-Aziz honored the theater with his presence along with the princes and the followers … Everyone watched the Arabic adaptation of the movie The Fugitive, an Egyptian production of 1936. The story revolves around two run away soldiers who lived in the mountains for a certain time, and then one of them dies while the other lives on with his sweetheart and marries her”.
This visit was an important event for the cinemas, and their popularity increased. Indeed, “The Crown’s visit ended any remaining opposition to art, both religious and social.”
Even the Kings succeeding King Abdul Aziz attended the screening of films and documentaries, whenever they visited Aramco. It was an opportunity to learn about developments in the world of arts, innovation and science as well as chart the challenges and new advances in development. So the reinstatement of entertainment, cinema and sports is only a revival of a well documented history of Saudi society and its institutions.
A culture for life
Of late a video clipping of King Abdul Aziz inaugurating the final match of the first Saudi Royal Cup became trending online. Commenting on the video a Saudi sports enthusiast Mohammed al-Qaddadi said: “The game between Al Etihad and Al-Tewfik, both from Dhahran, was the only game attended by King Abdul Aziz, who then handed over the trophy to the winner, amid celebration by the audience that surrounded the stadium.”
In a nutshell, the interregnum in which the society was restricted and held back has come to an end and we now have a political and governmental administration that considers entertainment a prerequisite for realizing the meaning of the civil state. Theaters and all other platforms have emancipated from the demented stars of the Shillat, snapchat, and social media who think that entertainment is about clowning, screaming and jesting.
The community deserves to have a fully developed and well-respected entertainment agenda that caters to everybody’s tastes and music is an essential part of that entertainment. By promoting entertainment we can revive the culture of life, which will crush the messages of hatred and eradicate the culture of death. As Imam Ibn Hazm once famously said, “Music is like walking in the orchards.”
This article is also available in Arabic.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.