RIYADH (Reuters) - Concerts have long been an underground affair in Saudi Arabia, where official adherence to the severe Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam puts music in murky legal territory.
But for six hours on Monday night, stretching into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, some 8,000 men sang along to epic love songs in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah as the kingdom held its first large-scale concert in nearly seven years.
It was a grand homecoming for Saudi superstar Mohammed Abdo, popularly known as the “Artist of the Arabs,” who has performed to packed houses abroad for over a decade - often mostly Saudis - but could not appear on stage at home.
Abdo was backed by a 60-man Egyptian orchestra and appeared with two other popular singers: Rabeh Sager, a Saudi, and Majid Al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who also holds Saudi citizenship.
Still, not all barriers had fallen. Security checkpoints around the venue blocked entry to the area for anyone without a ticket and women were barred from attending entirely.
The concert came only two days after a jazz performance sold out the 3,300-seat King Fahd Cultural Centre in the more puritanical capital Riyadh, which has not held public concerts in some 25 years.
The two events were bold steps forward for government plans to promote the entertainment and leisure sector, part of an economic and social reform drive aimed at creating jobs and weaning the country off its dependence on oil.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Muhandis, one of two other singers to perform, said after the show. “We were longing for such concerts in our beloved kingdom. The audience was longing for us and we were longing for them.”
The Jeddah concert was staged by Rotana, a company owned mostly by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
The kingdom’s new General Entertainment Authority (GEA) has staged some 70 events since it was created last year, but mostly in smaller and protected semi-public spaces while officials are on the lookout for disapproval from religious conservatives.
Abdo was slated to perform in Riyadh in September, but the concert was cancelled at the last minute without explanation.
Amr al-Madani, the newly appointed GEA chief executive, declined to say whether a Riyadh concert was still in the works, but said the authority aims to double household spending on entertainment to 6 percent by 2030 and is committed to “[creating] experiences that Saudi families can enjoy together.”
Abdo first performed in the kingdom after a decade-long hiatus at the Souq Okaz festival in Taiz, near Mecca, in August.
Although the Wahhabi clergy has been close to the Al Saud dynasty since the mid-18th century, offering it Islamic legitimacy in return for control over parts of the state, music in the kingdom was not always such a taboo.
Summer festivals in Jeddah and other Saudi cities used to feature concerts. Musical instruments have been sold for decades at the popular al-Halla market in downtown Riyadh.
“Historically, Saudi society was rich in culture. There were many musical traditions, with different variations and subcultures,” said Abdulsalam al-Wayel, a professor of sociology at King Saud University.
“People from throughout the Islamic world brought their traditions together in Mecca, somewhat like with jazz. This was part of people’s identity for centuries.”
But as conservatives gained power in the 1990s, the clerical establishment emboldened the kingdom’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) to crack down on performances and other activities they saw as immoral.
The CPVPV’s religious police chased after young men for playing music in their cars too loudly. Videos - regularly mocked by other Saudis - circulated online showing zealous men smashing musical instruments to pieces.
To this day, music is absent in malls and all but the poshest restaurants. The only public musical education is in military academies, to train bands for official marches.
Religious scholars, who control much of the kingdom’s legal system, remain divided on the question of whether music is permissible under Islam, although some inside the clerical establishment have started to question the evidence against it.
The state has tried for the past decade to foster a more moderate reading of Wahhabi teachings. It stepped up the pace this year as economic pressure to open up the country mounted.
Authorities clipped the powers of the religious police earlier this year, barring them from making arrests, and forged ahead with the Abdo concert despite a warning by the country’s grand mufti that “there is nothing good in song parties.”
Arts fans say social media campaigns against entertainment, which once pressured wary officials into cancelling events, are now dwarfed by the messages of support from fans.
Sultan al-Bazie, who runs the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts (SASCA), called these campaigns “free advertising,” after a hashtag opposing music lessons offered by his organisation last year resulted in a spike in registrations.
“Saudis have always been the biggest consumers of music in the Arab world,” he said. “Everybody is happy to have these kinds of performances back – and I say back, because it used to be there.”
Reporting by Katie Paul; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Tom Heneghan