RIYADH: 2019 is shaping up to be the year of entertainment in Saudi Arabia, with an ambitious program of events planned on a scale never before seen in the Kingdom.
The coming attractions, announced by General Entertainment Authority Chairman Turki Al-Sheikh in Riyadh on Tuesday night, aim to transform Saudi Arabia into one of the top 10 international entertainment destinations. To achieve this, he said, the GEA has negotiated long-term contracts with more than 100 local and international partners. In addition, restaurants and cafes will be able to apply for entertainment licenses.
Traditional and culturally significant local events feature prominently in the plans.
“Competitions are an important element of entertainment,” said Al-Sheikh. “The most important will take place during Ramadan and will be of an Islamic nature, with the supervision of Islamic scholars.
“The first competition will be for the most beautiful reciting of the Holy Qur’an, and competitors from all over the world are invited. The first prize will be SR 5 million.
“The second Islamic competition is for the athan (call for prayer). In addition to receiving a large prize of SR 2 million, the winner of the first prize can also look forward to raising the athan in the Prophet’s Holy mosque.”
Al-Sheikh also announced a SR1 million prize for participants in a Hijra Journey contest. It will require participants from around the Muslim world to walk between Makkah and Madinah in a reenactment of Prophet Muhammad’s journey of migration.
Soccer fans, meanwhile, are promised exhibition matches featuring football heroes such as former England midfielder David Beckham and French star Zinedine Zidane. The GEA is also looking into the possibility of holding an NBA championship basketball game in the Kingdom.
For those who prefer gentler pastimes, there will be a baloot championship and e-gaming events, while culture vultures can look forward to a varied program of concerts, theatrical events, comedy shows and feats of magic. There will also be a running of the bulls, a “winter wonderland” event, TV game shows, circuses from around the world, bazaars, floating restaurants and outdoor cinemas in 13 cities, plus much more.
One of the biggest new attractions expected to open in 2019 is the Madame Tussauds waxworks museum, which will have venues in Riyadh and Jeddah and feature a wax model of King Faisal.
Although many of these events and attractions have not been seen in Saudi Arabia for many years, if at all, Al-Sheikh emphasized that they will be presented in a way that respects local values.
“Our traditions and culture will be respected,” he said. “Our religion is clear and we will adhere to our Islamic values,” he said.
He also pointed out that similar events were common in the Kingdom at one time, and added: “This is us; we used to be like this 40 years ago, now we are returning to what we had.”
One pastime that is a more recent arrival in Saudi Arabia is drifting, a motor sport hobby that has become popular among Saudi youths. While it is frowned upon by the authorities on public streets, there are plans to give fans a chance to compete in organized events and competitions.
“Now rather than have someone drink soft drinks and annoy us on the streets, we have a new initiative with the General Sports Authority to launch rallies where youths can drift in safety, far from the public streets,” said Al-Sheikh.
One of the aims of the GEA is to discover and develop local talent and give it a chance to prosper internationally. Among the first to benefit from this are Osama, the “animal whisperer,” and Al-Juaad group, who will travel to Germany to showcase their talents.
“One of the many visions we have is that our local talent performs not only in Saudi Arabia but also abroad,” added Al-Sheikh, who also unveiled a colorful new GEA logo.
“Entertainment is a sector we heavily rely on for vision 2030, in realizing our dreams. We won’t attain our goals unless we work together.”
He said that in addition to the pleasure it provides, the entertainment industry is a vital part of the economy, adding: “It creates jobs and investment opportunities. There is an opportunity for everyone.”
To help support small and medium-sized local companies benefit from this, Al-Sheikh and Minister of Commerce and Investment Majed Al-Qasabi have signed an agreement that will help with the issuing of licenses for entertainment purposes. Al-Sheikh said coffee shops and restaurants will be issued permits to host live musical performances and stand up comedy events.