How Saudis won the ‘endurance’ race at Formula E
It might have been one small step for Jason Derulo, but it was one giant leap for Saudi Arabia when the American R&B artist took to the stage to entertain nearly 14,000 fans on Thursday’s opening night of the three-day Ad Diriyah Formula E festival.
Only a few years ago, such a concert would have been inconceivable. Indeed, who would have thought we would ever see other A-listers such as Enrique Iglesias, the Black Eyed Peas and David Guetta perform in public to a mixed audience in Saudi Arabia?
Of course, there have been several music concerts since the Vision 2030 reform plan was announced nearly two years ago — but nothing of this scale or prominence had occurred in the Kingdom before.
So while the Formula E racers might have had their eyes on the E-Prix trophy, the real challenge was the “endurance” race in which Saudis are taking part to show just how much the country is willing to open up.
The result, I believe, is overwhelmingly positive. We had a world-class three-day public mega event, packed with family entertainment and attended by a large roster of celebrities and international visitors. There was strictly no gender segregation.
Not a single case of harassment or anti-social behavior was reported, proving once again that Saudis are perfectly able to act responsibly without the now-defunct religious police to guard their virtue.
Is this kind of Western entertainment acceptable to everyone in Saudi Arabia? Of course not. However, those who opposed it simply did not buy tickets and no one forced them to attend; equally, they had no veto to prevent those who enjoy such events from doing so.
The success of this mega international event also sends several messages. Most importantly, contrary to what some Turkish or Qatari media outlets may insinuate, Saudi Arabia is not isolated. I say this while stating unequivocally that the killing of journalists is an extremely disturbing and unlawful matter that must be punished; and acknowledging, as I have written here before, that the horrific Jamal Khashoggi incident will negatively impact some of Riyadh’s international relations for some time.
What is reassuring is that this event, and the manner in which it was held, sends a clear message that Saudi Arabia has no intention of aborting its internal reform agenda. It comes weeks after Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman made a public statement at the annual Future Investment Initiative summit that the Kingdom’s war on extremism continues. Some analysts had feared that the pressure on Riyadh after Khashoggi’s death might cause it to halt its anti-extremism drive in a bid to gain support. They have been proved wrong.
In fact, there can be no stronger signal of Saudi Arabia’s determination to proudly hold on to its heritage with one hand and openly embrace modernity with the other than this world-class E-Prix in ancient Ad Diriyah. Of course, the location was selected partly for logistical reasons; an accessible street circuit, which the race requires, is not easy to find. That, however, does not negate the symbolism of Ad Diriyah being the capital of the first Saudi state, formed in 1744 in an alliance between Prince Muhammad bin Saud and Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (to whom the Wahhabi religious doctrine refers).
In 1818, Ad Diriyah was captured and the first Saudi state was destroyed by Ottoman armies led by Ibrahim Pasha, who feared that it threatened their grip on the Muslim world. The Saudi state was reborn twice after that and its capital has moved to Riyadh, while the Ottoman empire ultimately collapsed.
Two hundred years after its fall, it is significant that Ad Diriyah was chosen to host an event that could be regarded as the coming-of-age moment for Vision 2030. Over the past few days, Saudis and visitors alike had a glimpse of the future — a fourth Saudi state, and a future approaching at 275 km per hour.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News
Jason Derulo steps on stage in front of a sold out crowd at Ad Darriya (video courtesy: Carla DiBello)