UK eyes chance to help Saudi Arabia’s fledgling entertainment industry

The revival of commercial cinemas comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who is currently visiting the UK — spearheads efforts to return the Kingdom to a more ‘moderate Islam.’
Updated 08 March 2018
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UK eyes chance to help Saudi Arabia’s fledgling entertainment industry

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift the 35-year ban on cinemas last December has opened up opportunities for UK companies to help the Kingdom develop its entertainment industry.
“This is a very exciting time for both Saudi Arabia and the cinema industry and we see huge potential for the development of entertainment centers with the big-screen experience across the country,” said a spokesperson for Vue International. The cinema chain, which has its headquarters in the UK, was one of the first operators to move into the new sector.
The company signed a deal with local partner Abdulmohsin Al Hokair Holding Group on Feb. 12 and plans to open up to 30 multiplexes within three years. It was the was only operator invited to the Future Investment Initiative, held in Riyadh, last October and talks on a deal have been ongoing ever since.
US cinema chain AMC Entertainment signed a deal at the end of last year to form a joint venture with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to open cinemas in the Kingdom.
Other UK cinema chains are likely to monitor developments closely. “This is not something everyone can provide but there is bound to be interest from a number of entertainment companies were entering the Saudi market is appropriate to their strategies and international intentions,” said Vue’s spokesperson.
Chris Innes-Hopkins, executive director at the Saudi British Joint Business Council UK, told Arab News he has seen renewed interest from UK cinema chains.

“We have received a number of enquires for cinema operators. We are also working with the UK’s Department of International Trade on plans to promote the opportunities,” he said.
UK companies will have to compete with regional operators, and Vox Cinemas, part of the Dubai-based Majid Al-Futtaim group, who are keen to expand into Saudi Arabia. Novo Cinemas, with 152 screens in the UAE and Bahrain, has also expressed interest.
The revival of commercial cinemas comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who is currently visiting the UK — spearheads efforts to return the Kingdom to a more “moderate Islam.”
Last September, a decree was issued to lift the ban on women driving, while this January women were allowed to attend football matches for the first time.
Cinema visiting is expected to boost the Kingdom’s economy, helping to realize Vision 2030 plans to move beyond relying on oil.
The government’s economic strategy set out to increase household spending on cultural and entertainment activities from 2.9 percent to 6 percent.
The plan will also support cultural events and the creation of cultural venues such as libraries and museums, another sector where UK companies could find work.
There are “considerable opportunities” in the cultural heritage sectors, said Innes-Hopkins. “A number of UK companies, such as Cultural Innovations, have already worked with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage on museum development and restoration of historical sites,” he added.
Cultural Innovations is a London-based consultancy that has delivered museum and heritage projects across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.
“No doubt there will also be considerable interest in plans for theme parks and tourism development. Virgin Group have already shown an interest,” he added.
Richard Branson, head of the UK’s Virgin Group, was enthusiastic about tourism options at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last year, where he signed a $1 billion (SR 3.8 billion) deal with Saudi’s Public Investment Fund to invest in the Red Sea Resort project to develop a number of islands into luxury resorts.
UK-based firm Paragon Creative is another company that has worked on museums and theme parks in the region, and is eager to explore further opportunities in Saudi Arabia.
The company designs, builds and installs museum exhibits and theme park sets and has recently been working in Dubai on creating props and scenery for the new Hollywood movie-themed Motiongate theme park within Dubai Park and Resorts. The company works closely with Dubai-based partner PCME.
It is currently active working on the interiors of the “Life Gallery” at King Salman Science Oasis in Riyadh for Sabic (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation).
“I believe that the UAE is becoming a saturated market for attractions and leisure and Saudi Arabia is the next destination UK companies should focus on,” said Mark Pyrah, the company’s development director and founder.
“We have seen a 300 percent increase in opportunities over the past 12 months, but there has been a 50 percent fall in the UAE market,” he said.


Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 15 December 2018
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Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

  • Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet
  • A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old

JEDDAH: Ballet, one of the world’s most demanding art forms, is enjoying soaring popularity in Saudi Arabia as a new generation discovers its physical, mental and social benefits, and a Jeddah-based studio is at the forefront of the dance’s development in the Kingdom.
Sera McKnass, founder of iBallerina, said that the studio is shaping future ballerinas to be effective members of society.
“The goal is not only to pass on the art of ballet but also to raise up participants into healthy, classy and confident, caring individuals,” the 30-year-old Turkish-Lebanese master teacher said.
Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups.
“Mothers sign up their daughters to be trained as ballerinas, but now young adults have dreams of learning how to pirouette, chasse and jete,” McKnass told Arab News. “They come to iBallerina to start the journey and transform their souls and bodies, becoming stronger and more graceful women.”
Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet. “It's now in most of the main gyms, and private or international schools in the city.”
The 20-year-old advises aspiring ballerinas to start at a young age. “It’s important to start early because improved strength and flexibility are easily acquired at a younger age.”
Ballet offers myriad physical benefits, she said. “It improves muscle tone and definition, elongates arms, and aligns the posture properly.”
Al-Kibsi said that while many Saudis saw ballet as an activity for children, “not a lot of them are aware that adults can also perform. They assume that you should be thin or flexible from the get-go. They don’t understand that with dedication and discipline, ballet strengthens and increases flexibility.”
Dana Garii, a 23-year-old Saudi writer, has been practicing ballet at the studio since February.
“I’ve been wanting to do it since I was young, but I couldn’t find the opportunity. When I found they have classes here, I just went for it. People asked me, ‘aren’t you too old?’ But that’s a myth. People think you can’t do ballet after a certain age, but you can start any time,” she told Arab News.
“Ballet is important to me. It’s more than just the physical aspects — it has taught me how to be modest, and that nothing hard ever comes easy.
“It has also taught me patience and how to take on difficult situations because it’s not only difficult physically but also psychologically. It has taught me how to overcome my fears,” Garii said.
A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old.
“There was a TV show for kids about the mouse that did ballet (‘Angelina Ballerina’) and it inspired me. I’ve always wanted to be a ballerina,” she said.
“Ballet is very important to me. Dance is one of the ways I express myself and I feel at one with myself when I’m practicing.
“It’s a very hard thing to do, but it brings me so much joy.”
Saudi graphic designer Sara Al-Sabaan, 22, has also been practicing ballet since she was a young child.
“I started dancing in a ballet school in Guadalajara, in Mexico. Then I continued at the Kinetico dance school in Riyadh,” she said.
Al-Sabaan’s mother inspired her to take up the art form. “I’m following in her footsteps. She was a ballet dancer herself.”
The young dancer has watched ballet’s growth in popularity. “Dance classes were available when I was a child, but they have been most popular in the past decade.”
Practicing ballet is a form of self-expression, she said.
“I have danced modern, contemporary and classical ballet, and it affects me immensely. Not only is it a great physical activity, it’s also an outlet for self-expression through movement.”