Many believe that Riyadh Season, the second edition of which is currently being held in the Saudi capital, is just a festival of music and singing. But the truth is that concerts do not exceed 2 percent of the Riyadh Season schedule, as Turki Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, has said.
Focusing on concerts and ignoring the rest of the entertainment, cultural, sports and social events is a deliberate course of action by a specific current that is opposed to the profound changes taking place in Saudi Arabia — because such changes are making its influence diminish. This current is the radical Islamist current, which exploits the negative stereotype of conservatives in Saudi society in order to promote the view that Riyadh Season is one of the factors destroying society and corrupting the morals of the new generation. This view states that the programs Riyadh Season embraces are not compatible with the nature of the land of the two holy mosques, as they are contrary to Islamic law, according to the claims of the Sahwa movement, the followers of Sururism and the radical Salafis.
This particular point, in which the hard-liners seek to tarnish the image of Riyadh Season, is the source of the festival’s strength and a demonstration of its effectiveness in bringing about structural change in the behavior and thinking of large segments of Saudi society.
Hence, Riyadh Season is the antithesis of the Sahwa and one of the most important pillars of Vision 2030, through which the old conservative, secluded, debilitating mentalities, which believe in strict interpretations of religion, are gradually changing. These mentalities believe that the road to paradise passes through the expansion of the list of prohibitions and the reduction of the permissible in Islam.
Riyadh Season has paved the way for change on two levels. The first is by providing broad options for Saudi families, including young girls, for fun, joy and entertainment. They can now live normally and choose the various activities that suit them, thereby restoring the “stolen spirit” to society.
Saudis today are more cheerful because they seek to build a diverse society that respects different cultures.
In previous times, Saudis had very limited options and they suffered from the interventions of members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Moreover, a number of informal hard-liners used to break into theaters or private parties and prevent several activities, causing Saudis to retreat inside their homes or to very private farms or residential complexes, or even leave the Kingdom to watch a movie, play with their children in a theme park, enjoy a concert or lie on the beach freely. All of these are the natural rights of any human being, but the hard-liners deprived Saudis of such joys, trying to apply a specific Salafist model, and those who disagreed with it were infidels or at best a wicked person.
So the GEA has given people the right to choose — a right they have been denied for years.
The second level on which Riyadh Season has encouraged change is what we call “change through shock,” for example by giving a stage to a myriad of artists and singers, hosting wrestling events, establishing very fancy international restaurants, and giving Saudi women the right to go to these events without censorship and without requiring a veil. You can find girls sitting smoking shisha as if they were in a cafe in Beirut, London or Paris.
This came as a shock not only to the hard-liners, but also to the members of a conservative segment of society who found themselves in the midst of new patterns of behavior, which they previously saw as impossible in Saudi Arabia. These behavioral changes turned into a living reality protected by law. In addition, the government has introduced legislation prohibiting harassment and punishing those who abuse girls or prevent young people and families from exercising their freedoms in accordance with the law.
Hence, the change through shock aspect has had a major impact because it quickly destroyed well-established foundations, questioned further existing ones, and made the new generation ask about their right to violate the teachings of their ancestors and to have their own way of expressing themselves freely.
The power of the father, the husband, the family and the big brother, which was exercised in a violent manner, transgressive to civil and natural rights, has been determined and there is no longer this “big stick” that can kill girls and the new generation.
Certainly, the whole society has not changed, not even half of it. But change has already entered every house and been heard and seen by all Saudis, which means that those who have not yet changed today will change tomorrow. And those who oppose change will find themselves forced to do so without anyone hating them, because the nature of the future that Vision 2030 seeks to achieve cannot be accomplished through the old mentalities, which are afraid of change.
Importantly, Riyadh Season has not robbed anyone of their right not to attend or to criticize. You have the right not to participate or to have your own point of view, but you have no right to prevent others or to consider participants to be deviant from Islam.
The source of power has changed greatly; it is no longer in the hands of the radical Islamists. It has moved to civil, modern, rapidly emerging forces, ensuring a discourse that is more attractive and influential to society than that of the Islamists.
Some Saudi hard-liners hesitated to criticize Riyadh Season, prompting their Gulf allies, specifically in Kuwait, to attack it in a stinging way. Former MP Waleed Al-Tabatabaie harshly panned Riyadh Season on his Twitter account, especially since many Kuwaitis traveled to Saudi Arabia to attend the events.
Al-Tabatabaie knows that Saudi Arabia is the center of gravity in the Gulf and that its ongoing process of social and religious reform will have repercussions for its Arab neighborhood. The weakness of the political Islam current in the Kingdom will have an impact on the supporters of this current in the Gulf, leading to the decline of their popularity, which is what the Islamists in Kuwait fear the most.
After all, Saudis today are more cheerful and happy because they practice their lives away from any guardianship by clerics and seek to build a diverse society that respects human rights and different cultures — a society that is as natural as any other human society.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa