Egyptian singer stirs outrage with toplessness and Qatari sympathies
The 31-year-old singer and actor whose hits include Number 1 made a dramatic entry onto the stage at the Riyadh Season festival in a luxury car and then appeared bare-chested on stage. At one point in his performance, he appeared on a bed surrounded by four gyrating female dancers.
Such scenes would have been unthinkable in the conservative Saudi kingdom just a few years ago, when religious police used to enforce a strict code of morality.
However, Saudi Arabia's current strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has enforced social liberalisation on the country, creating a new body called the General Authority for Entertainment to oversee events and inviting Arab and Western pop stars, including Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj (who later pulled out of a scheduled performance in protest at the kingdom's human rights record) to stage concerts.
One Saudi Twitter account calling itself Nahu al-Hureya (Towards Freedom) commented on the performance angrily, saying "This clown is brought here to perform a show of decadence and stupidity in #SaudiArabia while people of knowledge and culture are thrown in prison!!"
While Ramadan's scandalous (by Saudi standards) performance outraged many Middle Eastern Twitter users, something the singer said on stage was likely to have outraged Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government even more.
At the end of the performance Ramadan exclaimed, "Long live Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine, Morocco, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, and Bahrain and all the Arab countries, even the ones we're a little upset with – Qatar. They're our dear friends and brothers and sisters – there's no problem!"
Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt, has imposed a blockade on Qatar since 2017, saying that the Gulf country supports terrorism, a charge that the Qatari government has emphatically denied.
Any expression of sympathy with Qatar is forbidden. A prominent Saudi cleric and author, Sheikh Salman Al-Awdah, was arrested in September 2017 for expressing his hope on Twitter that Saudi and Qatar would resolve their dispute soon. He is still in prison and prosecutors have asked for him to be sentenced to death.
The charge sheet against him has not been made public but reportedly includes the heinous crime of "not praising the king enough".
Saudi Arabia has imprisoned hundreds of clerics and activists who have spoken out about political and social issues in the kingdom. At least two Muslim clerics have died in custody due to medical neglect.
The UAE and Bahrain have also both declared "sympathy with Qatar" to be a crime.
However, last week the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia all confirmed that their national teams will attend the Gulf Cup in Qatar later this month, despite the blockade.
Ramadan's performance served to highlight the contradiction between the Saudi authorities' more socially permissive attitude and their continued political repression.