Year in Review: New horizons open for Saudis

Saudi Arabia’s changing cultural landscape brought leading figures from the worlds of fashion, music and sport to the Kingdom, including France’s footballing great Thierry Henry (bottom right).
Updated 21 December 2018

Year in Review: New horizons open for Saudis

  • Saudi Arabia can look back on a year that opened new horizons for its people — and changed the way it is seen by the world

JEDDAH: If there was a coming-of-age moment for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 program, it was probably this. As six of the world’s top performers took to the stage in Riyadh for the Ad Diriyah E-Prix post-race concert at the weekend, thousands of Saudis swayed and danced to the music, enjoying themselves late into the night.

With 2018 drawing to a close, the world is seeing Saudi Arabia in a new light. It has been a year of change that many skeptics believed would never happen.

Life is changing for the people of the Kingdom in ways both big and small. The infamous ban on women driving has been lifted to wide acclaim. Mixed-gender events? Men and women can now attend music performances, professional wrestling bouts and football matches under the same roof.  Public entertainment? The Kingdom has more options than could be imagined even two years ago.

Notable both for their symbolism and substance, the moves transforming the lives of Saudi citizens are drastically changing the way the world views everyday life in the Kingdom. Women are driving, entertainment venues are popping up nationwide, gender segregation in public places is fading away, and people’s social lives have widened.

One of Vision 2030’s objectives is to increase and diversify entertainment to meet the needs of the population. Of equal importance is the promotion of Saudi contributions in art and culture. Since the unveiling of Vision 2030 two years ago, the number of social and cultural events staged in the Kingdom has risen steadily — but 2018 turned out to be a bonanza.

“This year has seen one unexpected joyful event after another,” Abdullah Salem, an investment banker based in Riyadh, told Arab News during a visit to the E-Prix venue. “I was never exposed to this much entertainment as a child. Now my children can see things I only got to see abroad on family vacations. They get the best of both worlds.”

Many Saudis will remember 2018 as the year cinemas reopened after a 35-year gap. “Black Panther” became the first blockbuster film to be screened in the Kingdom in recent memory. For many, it was a time to reminisce about their childhood movie experiences. For the first-timers, it was exciting just to bear witness to a historic moment.

However, according to Faisal Bafarat, senior adviser to the chairperson of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), changes in the Kingdom “are just the beginning of  our journey.”

 GEA events covered about 45 cities this year, with 3,200 days of activities. “This is still less than what we hope to deliver,” he said. “It is just the start. There is a long way to go.”

In 2019, the GEA aims to make an even bigger impact by expanding its reach in the Kingdom, he said. 

Although many believed reforms in Saudi Arabia would happen gradually, the changes kept coming. If this shows anything, it is that the populace has embraced change wholeheartedly.

Retired psychologist Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sobihi explains that people can find change difficult, since it comes with fear of the unknown that can cause anxiety.

Dr. Al-Sobihi believes that the Kingdom’s difficult “awakening” period after the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Makkah pressured society on a both a social and psychological level. “People accepted these changes quickly not because they adapt to change in that manner, but because the ‘awakening’ period delayed many natural changes. So when change came, most were welcoming.”

Venues and institutions across Saudi Arabia have played their part as catalysts for the Kingdom’s vast talent pool. King Abdulaziz Cultural Center, Ithra’s Tanween, the Saudi Art Council, Souk Okaz, Al-Janadriyah Festival and others have helped build cultural bridges by merging traditional and global perspectives to create new experiences not only for the residents of the Kingdom, but also for visitors. 

Meanwhile, advances in the Kingdom’s national heritage sector have come with UNESCO recognition of sites overseen by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. Almost 20 new sites were registered this year, with plans to prepare more next year.

Travel and tourism made up 9.4 percent of Saudi GDP in 2017. With new e-visa systems allowing visitors easier entry to the Kingdom, that figure was expected to rise by almost 5 percent this year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.  

“No longer will we be known by ‘the only nation in the world’ nonsense — we are opening up to the world more than ever,” said college student Sufana A.J., a staff organizer at the at-Turaif historical site in Ad Diriyah. “We’re welcoming our first wave of international visitors and we expect more.”

Saudi Arabia has never been short of artists, but the recent transformation has brought on a new generation eager to reach their goals. Misk Art, a symbol of the Kingdom’s grassroots art scene, has been the subject of media interest since its world tour earlier this year. 

“Art is a mirror to understand ourselves, and also a window through which outsiders can have a clearer view into our world,” said contemporary artist Ahmed Mater. “Saudi culture and society is in flux. During such change, it’s even more important to find a way to process, assess and document.”

In its first curated event, the Saudi Film Council launched a pavilion at the Cannes Marche du Film, with Saudi filmmakers outlining the Kingdom’s industry ambitions. 

Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux said he was “thrilled that Saudi Arabia has ... a clear focus on nurturing its filmmaking talent and sharing its stories with the world.”

The Kingdom’s participation at Cannes was “a great way of opening up global opportunities for its creative talent,” he said.

As the year nears its end, reforms  on a social scale have been intense and focused. It is clear these changes are here to stay and are welcomed by Saudis. What’s next? We’ve yet to see.


Indian exporters urge government to negotiate lift of Saudi ban on produce 

Updated 47 min 9 sec ago

Indian exporters urge government to negotiate lift of Saudi ban on produce 

  • The ban was imposed in wake of Nipah virus outbreak last May 
  • With mango season around the corner, Kerala exporters hope the Kingdom will allow imports again

NEW DELHI: Indian exporters have urged the government to ask Saudi Arabia to lift the importation ban on fruits and vegetables from the southern state of Kerala.

The outbreak of a deadly virus in certain parts of Kerala in May last year forced Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to ban imports of horticultural products from the state. 

Most GCC countries have lifted the ban thereafter.

“We are losing more than $1,000 per day as a result of the ban,” says P.E. Ashraf Ali of Pomona Exports, a Kerala-based export company that has been sending fruits and vegetables to Saudi Arabia for the past 20 years.

“We are now sending our products to other south Indian cities, like Coimbatore and Bangalore, and this entails extra costs for us and has significantly reduced our profit margin,” Ali told Arab News.  

Around 20 exporters in Kerala export horticulture products to GCC countries.

“Saudi Arabia is one of the major markets for us in the Gulf region,” said Ali. “Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah are three major airports to which we send our products.” 

V.S. Sunil Kumar, Kerala's agriculture minister, called it “a serious issue.”

He said: “I have already sent two letters to the union government in New Delhi to talk to Saudi Arabia and sort out the matter. New Delhi should reassure them and request them to lift the ban.”

Kumar, who is also a minister in the communist government in the southern state, reiterated the importance of trade with Saudi Arabia.

“Kerala and the Kingdom have shared close trade and cultural ties for centuries,” he told Arab News. “I understand the central government has already taken up the issue with authorities in Saudi Arabia. New Delhi should take more proactive steps to address the concerns of exporters in Kerala.”

V Venugopal, president of the Cochin Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a premier trade body in Kerala, called for inter-governmental discussion between India and Saudi Arabia to sort out this issue.

“The Kerala government has taken very effective steps to control the Nipah virus,” he said. “If exports do not resume soon, the fruit and vegetable market will be very badly impacted. These are very perishable items that cannot be stored. The Indian government should convince Riyadh that Nipah was a small incident that happened more than seven months ago.”

He said that mangoes from Kerala are among the most popular in Saudi Arabia and that many people from Kerala living in Saudi Arabia are expecting the fruit. 

“This is not only a loss for local farmers, but for people in the country,” he said.

Arab News approached the Commerce Ministry in New Delhi on this issue, but received no comment.