‘Riyadh Season’ is evidence of great change in Saudi Arabia

The month-long, government-sponsored festival includes a so-called horror weekend that takes place the weekend before Halloween in a formerly conservative and religious state.

 General view of Riyadh city, after the Saudi government eased a curfew, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh (photo credit: REUTERS/AHMED YOSRI)
General view of Riyadh city, after the Saudi government eased a curfew, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh
(photo credit: REUTERS/AHMED YOSRI)

Dressed up in the guise of Dracula, Saudi national Ali Al-Otaibi celebrated an ersatz Halloween during the third edition of “Riyadh Season,” a month-long, government-sponsored festival that includes a so-called horror weekend that takes place the weekend before Halloween, in a kingdom that until recently never allowed the celebration of non-Islamic holidays.

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“This is my first official celebration in Saudi Arabia, the atmosphere was wonderful and fun, I did not have to travel to any other country for the celebrations, whether for Halloween, or even to enjoy singers from different countries of the world,” Al-Otaibi told The Media Line.

The Riyadh Season, which began on October 21, has already broken records – it appears in the Guinness World Records  – and is considered the greatest entertainment extravaganza in the Middle East and the Arab world.

This year, the Riyadh Season includes 15 entertainment areas, most notably Boulevard World, Boulevard Riyadh City, Winter Wonderland, Square 8 and Riyadh Sky, as well as some free areas such as Al Suwaidi Park, Zaman Village and Al-Zal Market, in addition to 108 interactive experiences and more than 150 diverse artistic performances, eight international shows, and 65 nights of fireworks.

A VIEW shows vehicles driving on a street in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this month. (credit: AHMED YOSRI/ REUTERS)A VIEW shows vehicles driving on a street in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this month. (credit: AHMED YOSRI/ REUTERS)

According to official figures, more than two million people visited the Riyadh Season during the first two weeks of the event, as Saudi Arabia seeks to encourage domestic tourism. Last year’s season saw more than 15 million visitors to the capital Riyadh, according to official figures.

The Riyadh Season also is evidence of the great transformation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince, as the conservative and religiously strict state has turned into a country in which festivals and events that were previously forbidden are now allowed.

In recent years, the role of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was first curtailed and then almost completely canceled. Previously, the commission’s members, who were considered to be religious extremists, roamed markets and entertainment centers, closing shops during prayer times and arresting any woman who did not wear a hair covering or loose clothing.

Saudi women can now wear whatever they want in the Saudi capital, but some customs and traditions related to dress controls are still applied by the police in Riyadh and in other regions of the kingdom, as well as by the organizers of the Riyadh Season.

Official Gulf statistics show a 30% increase in the number of Saudi tourists visiting the last Riyadh Season, due to the promotion of domestic tourism in Saudi Arabia.

In addition, Saudi Arabia allowed non-citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries in the Gulf to obtain an electronic visa for the first time in its history for the purposes of a visit that costs about $150 for a full year, to encourage tourism in Saudi Arabia, especially at festivals and large events.

Whereas previously visas were limited to performing the religious pilgrimages of Umrah and Hajj, and provided for some businesses, now citizens of more than 65 countries can obtain electronic visas in order to attend a major entertainment event in the country.

Turki Al-Sheikh, head of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, is considered to be a close associate of the Saudi crown prince, and is the person who created these public events and brought about a major change in entertainment in Saudi Arabia.

He is also one of the most controversial figures on Twitter, as he directly announces these events through his personal account, while his followers are divided between supporters who defend his activities, and opponents who attack him and consider him to be on the outside of the customs, traditions and teachings of Islam, which officially is the national religion. 

“Everyone here is very happy, the events are many and the attendance is large, and every day we receive hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially at large events," Rahaf Al-Shamiri, an organizer for the activities of the Riyadh Season, told The Media Line. "

"Organization becomes better every year, as we gain more experience, and citizens are accustomed to these big events and have become more organized than before," she stressed.

Nawaf Abdul Hamid, a Saudi journalist specializing in economic affairs, told The Media Line: "The new openness in Saudi Arabia is gradually increasing. In the past, events were forbidden, but now they are largely allowed."

"Year after year, openness is increasing in Saudi Arabia, and the matter includes events, and even laws and legislation. There is a big change taking place in Saudi Arabia, we did not expect it to happen in just a few years," he said.

Abdul Hamid credited the crown prince, known as MbS for the changes, adding: “it took 25 years to happen, but the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia made it happen in less than seven years."

Abdul Hamid explained: "There is great diversity in Saudi Arabia, and the state is now aware of this diversity. You are in one country. You can live in the desert atmosphere, and the cold weather, or visit the modern entertainment season of Riyadh, or live nights in the historical region of Al-Ula. It is very wonderful to discover the places in our kingdom."

He pointed out that domestic tourism generates billions for the state's public treasury, in addition to being a major driver of the economy.  

"The Saudi economy is now growing well away from oil, there are industries, and there is tourism, and tourism is a major part of the country's future economy,” he said. 

Saudi citizens are divided in their response to the new openness. 

"I studied in the United States, and I wished to see such events in my country. Now it has become a reality," Mohammed Al-Thukair, a Saudi national, told The Media Line.

He added: "Such big events are considered important, as they are evidence that Saudi Arabia has emerged from the shell it was in, into a more open world."

He said that he has not left Saudi Arabia this year in order to seek out entertainment or events. "I always make sure to attend the activities of the Riyadh Season, and I hope to see more entertainment," he said.

Rashid Al-Hajri, a Saudi national, feels differently. "I do not see distinction in singing or other activities, but there should be more cultural activities," he told The Media Line. 

"It is not possible to reject all change, nor accept it all. We are against what goes against customs only. As for entertainment, everyone seeks it," he said.