RIYADH – Saudi Arabia will stage more than 5000 shows, festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, as it tries to shake off its conservative image in a drive to keep tourist dollars at home and lure in visitors.
The state wants to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas every year by Saudis seeking entertainment, lifting a ban on cinemas and putting on shows by Western artists.
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US rapper Nelly performed in Jeddah in December, albeit to a men-only crowd, and Greek musician Yanni played to a mixed-gender audience.
The gradual relaxing of gender segregation risks causing a backlash from religious conservatives, but public objections to a wider programme of reforms have been more muted in recent months after several critics were arrested.
At an event to launch the 2018 entertainment calendar, Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the state-run General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said infrastructure investments over the next decade would reach 240 billion riyals ($64 billion), including an opera house to be completed around 2022.
That will contribute 18 billion riyals to annual GDP and generate 224,000 new jobs by 2030, the GEA said.
“The bridge is starting to reverse,” Khatib said, referring to the causeway linking Saudi Arabia with more liberal Bahrain where many Saudis flock for weekend getaways.
“And I promise you that we will reverse this migration, and people from Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain will come to Saudi.”