Saudi Arabia launches $34.7 billion entertainment revolution
Saudi Arabia has launched an ambitious drive to become a culture and entertainment hub as part of sweeping modernisation plans, just months after repealing a decades-long ban on cinemas.
American film star Katie Holmes and British actor-cum-director Idris Elba rubbed shoulders with Saudi officials, as the conservative kingdom on Thursday night kicked off an initiative to invest 130 billion riyals ($34.7 billion, 29 billion euros) in culture and leisure by 2020.
The goal is to create "a true cultural industry, with theatres, cinemas and training centres," said Ahmad al-Mazid, who leads culture policy for Saudi Arabia.
Key projects include 16 entertainment complexes, an aquatic centre and three other huge leisure hubs - all part of a bid to ensure three Saudi cities make it into the global top 100 for quality of life.
The project, dubbed "Quality of Life Program 2020," is in part designed to encourage wealthy young citizens to spend more of their leisure time in the kingdom, where more than half the population is below the age of 25.
"It will contribute to the satisfaction of Saudis and incentivise them to invest in their country and to stay," said Ahmad Khatib, head of the oil-rich state's entertainment policy.
The government will pump 50.9 billion riyals into this cultural revolution, while courting private investors and foreign partners for the rest of the investment.
"Saudi Arabia gave me an opportunity to make my film here, it made sense on an economical model," British actor Elba, who made his name as a gangster in the gritty American police series The Wire, told AFP at the event.
"I would definitely be here - why not?" added the Londoner, who has in more recent years turned his hand to directing and has a Twitter following of more than 2.5 million.
The investment programme feeds into a drive by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernise his homeland, both in terms of liberalising Saudi society and reducing the economy's overwhelming dependence on oil.
The initiative aims to create 300,000 new jobs and represents a key pillar of the nation's "Vision 2030" reforms.
In February, Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority announced it will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.
The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an oil slump since 2014.
Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai.