First Published: 2017-03-10

Three decades later, Saudis get their first concert
Tickets sold out in 30 minutes for long-awaited concert music in Riyadh as Saudi Arabia has cautiously begun introducing entertainment.
Middle East Online

Saudi Arabia seeks to boost entertainment despite religious warnings of "depravity"

RIYADH - Legendary Arab singer Rashed al-Majed gave his fans three encores in the Saudi capital on Thursday night. Why not? They had waited about three decades for such a show.

Majed opened for Mohammed Abdu as part of what one music lover called a "paradigm shift" in the conservative Islamic kingdom, which has cautiously begun introducing entertainment despite opposition from Muslim hardliners.

Both singers have Saudi roots and are popular throughout the Arab world but fans said Abdu had not sung in the Saudi capital since 1988.

Local media reported there had been no other concerts in Riyadh since the early 1990s, after which they were effectively banned although private musical events did occur.

"We missed them a lot," Jamal al-Onzi, a 31-year-old bank worker, said of the singers.

He was among the audience of 2,000 -- all men -- who paid between 500 and 2,500 riyals ($133-$667) for the performances at King Fahad Cultural Centre hall.

"We sold out in 30 minutes," Habib Rahal, of the organisers Rotana Music, said.

Dressed almost exclusively in traditional white thobes and chequered headgear, the crowd was initially sedate despite the infectious drum beats and melodious strings that accompanied Majed.

In the shadows, one spectator mouthed the words and moved his arms in time to the music. Another tapped his left hand on his thobe.

There was lots of enthusiastic shouting and calls of "Rashed" before the energy peaked, pushing the singer to his three encores.

They swayed in time to the music. Some even stood up to dance.

- 'Happiness and joy' -

After more than 90 minutes, it was time to do it all again when Abdu took the stage at around midnight.

Less pop-influenced than Majed, the elder man sings patriotic and traditionally romantic songs.

"I have feelings of happiness and joy and pleasure," he told reporters before ending his long absence from a Riyadh stage.

Abdu gained fame long before Abdulaziz al-Shudayyid was born, but the 21-year-old student said the veteran artist "sings for my generation."

"I know by heart all his songs," Shudayyid said.

Although conservatism still runs deep, there is pressure for change in a country where more than half of the population is younger than 25 and people are connected to the wider world through the internet.

They have a champion at the highest levels of power in Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, who is pushing economic diversification and social reform of the oil-dependent kingdom.

One of the most visible aspects has been entertainment, partly out of an economic motive to get Saudis spending at home rather than elsewhere in the Gulf.

The kingdom still bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatres. It usually segregates unrelated men and women in restaurants and other public places.

But hundreds of men and women, side-by-side, clapped to the hip hop beat when New York theatrical group iLuminate performed in October.

That began an entertainment calendar that has so far included WWE wrestling and the kingdom's first Comic-Con pop culture festival. The US-based Monster Jam truck competition is scheduled for next week in Riyadh.

- 'Everyone listens to music' -

There has, however, been resistance.

On Thursday a member of the religious police disrupted a musical performance by a group from Malaysia at a venue hosting Riyadh's international book fair, damaging their sound system.

The information ministry called it "an isolated case" by the religious police, whose power has been greatly reduced.

A scheduled show by Abdu last September in Riyadh did not take place, but in January he performed without incident in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, widely considered somewhat more liberal than Riyadh.

Abdulrahman al-Shaya, 28, a chemical engineer who attended the Riyadh concert, said Saudi Arabia is going through "a paradigm shift" with such events that have proven popular.

"This is towards the good of the country, and I hope they continue," he said.

Saudi Arabia's highest-ranking cleric warned in January of the "depravity" of cinemas and music concerts, saying they would corrupt morals.

Eman al-Nafjan, a veteran blogger on Saudi society, culture and women's issues, said that the "loud fundamentalists" against music are a minority.

"Everyone listens to music," she said.


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