Disneyland in Saudi Arabia?
If the definition of a magic kingdom is a place where anything can happen, then it certainly applies to the new Saudi Arabia — a country undergoing unprecedented change driven by an ambitious reform plan called Vision 2030.
This weekend alone there were four events in the Kingdom that only two years ago would have been impossible: First, a performance in Riyadh by the Arab Music Ensemble of the Egyptian Opera House; next, the opening in the capital of the latest Avengers movie at the same time as its worldwide premiere; then, on Friday, 60,000 Saudi wrestling fans — including, for the first time, women — enjoyed the electrifying Greatest Royal Rumble Special at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.
Finally, a literally ground-breaking event; breaking ground on the Qiddiya cultural, sports and entertainment destination 40km outside the capital. This project is massive, not only in area — 334 sq km — but also in symbolism, with the inauguration receiving royal patronage.
All this shows several things; first and foremost that Saudis, like everyone else, love a bit of fun, from classical music to WWE piledrivers.
There can be no doubt that one of the first and most significant achievements of Vision 2030 has been to rescue Saudi society from extremists, and open it up to family entertainment.
The estimated $30 billion a year that Saudis spend on entertainment abroad can now stay in the Kingdom, jobs are being created — and, most importantly, families who could not afford to travel for their entertainment can now enjoy quality time with their loved ones ... here at home!
The second lesson is that demand for quality entertainment is solid and sustainable.
Saudi Arabia is the only Arab member of the G20, with the biggest economy in the region and a population of 30 million, most of them under 30; not to mention the many millions of religious tourists, many of whom may wish to stay a little longer when their pilgrimage is over.
One of the first achievements of Vision 2030 has been to rescue Saudi society from extremists, and open it up to entertainment.
Faisal J. Abbas
Little wonder that shortly after the US cinema chain AMC obtained the first license to operate a movie theater in Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s Majid Al Futtaim Group announced plans to invest $500 million in building 600 Vox cinemas across the Kingdom.
What next? Well, in a few weeks women will be allowed to drive, in itself another phenomenal milestone for the Kingdom and its reform plan. With that obstacle out of the way, along with the removal of restrictions on women entering sports stadiums and public arenas, Saudi Arabia is opening up — and fast.
As more investment pours into the entertainment sector, and more international-class venues open their doors, the Kingdom will be perfectly placed to become a regional hub for family entertainment; a notion that, two short years ago, few people could even have imagined.
So will we see a Disneyland on Saudi soil? When he visited the US this month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did meet Disney chairman and chief executive Robert A. Iger.
In a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, Iger confirmed that the possibility of opening a park in Saudi Arabia had been discussed. While he made it clear that no decision was made, he did promise to visit and assess the opportunity.
Even though Qiddiya will be a massive attraction, the arrival of Disney would send a powerful message about the triumph of shared family values, peace and love over the agenda of those who once wished to take our whole region in an altogether darker direction.
So I do hope that Iger does indeed deliver on his pledge, and visits us soon — to discover that there is no better place for his Magic Kingdom than our magic kingdom!
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News.
• Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas