RIYADH - With iconic buildings bathed in green light and planned cultural shows, concerts and fireworks, Saudi Arabia geared up to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom on Saturday.
Car stereos blared patriotic songs as citizens began racing through the streets of the capital Riyadh at midnight in cars bedecked with the national flag to mark the annual event in the kingdom, founded in the 1930s.
The national day celebration coincides with a crucial time for Saudi Arabia, which is in a battle for regional influence with arch-rival Iran, bogged down in a controversial military intervention in neighbouring Yemen and at loggerheads with fellow US Gulf ally Qatar.
"On this great occasion, we feel that the kingdom has become an important state with a pioneering role at the regional and international levels," Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a speech cited by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The 32-year-old prince is set to be the first millennial to occupy the throne in a country where half the population is under 25, though the timing of his ascension remains unknown.
Already viewed as the de facto ruler controlling all the major levers of government, from defence to economy, the prince is seen as stamping out traces of internal dissent before any formal transfer of power from his 81-year-old father King Salman.
Authorities this month arrested around two dozen people, including influential clerics, in what activists decried as a coordinated crackdown.
Analysts say many of those detained are resistant to Prince Mohammed's aggressive foreign policy that includes the boycott of Gulf neighbour Qatar as well as some of his bold reforms, dubbed Vision 2030, which include privatising state assets and cutting subsidies.
"The kingdom is an active member in the G20, the world's strongest 20 economies, and is keen to achieve the kingdom's Vision 2030 that represents the beginning of a new phase of hard work for a better future, with the same Islamic values," Mohammed said in his speech.
The kingdom's General Entertainment Authority is hosting 27 events across 17 cities to celebrate national day, including concerts, laser shows and firework displays.
The main highlight will be a cultural event at the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, where women have been invited for the first time to attend celebrations with their families, opening up a previously male-only venue.
This marks a shift from previous celebrations in the kingdom where women are effectively barred from sports arenas by strict rules on segregation of the sexes in public.
Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women and is the only country where they are not allowed to drive.
But the government appears to be relaxing some norms as part of its Vision 2030 plan for economic and social reforms.
It has cautiously begun introducing entertainment, including music concerts, despite opposition from Muslim hardliners in the kingdom, where public cinemas and theatre are banned.