Saudi Arabia eyes billions of dollars in entertainment investments

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it expects billions of dollars to be pumped into a nascent state-backed entertainment sector and is eyeing dozens of Western acts, including an exhibition NBA basketball game and a Spanish-style running of the bulls.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi people are seen at Riyadh Park mall during the opening of a cinema, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

The kingdom is trying to shake off its ultra-conservative image in a drive to keep tourist dollars at home, lure foreign visitors, create jobs for young Saudis, and improve the quality of life in a country where cinemas and public concerts were banned until recently.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has loosened social strictures, including ending a ban on women driving, curbing the powers of the religious police and easing gender segregation rules.

The government has put on Arab and Western performances, including a Black Eyed Peas concert last month, that were once unimaginable in a country where bearded religious police patrolled the streets with sticks to guard against public immorality like singing and dancing.

But the reform push has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrests of women’s rights activists, clerics and intellectuals. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October has also tarnished the country’s image and scared off some potential investors.

At the launch of the 2019 entertainment calendar, Turki al-Sheikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), listed dozens of events the kingdom hopes to host this year, including auto races, magic shows and theatrical performances.

“I hope national companies, banks, businessmen, artists and all sectors put their hands together. There are golden opportunities,” he told an audience that included princes, ministers, Arab celebrities and a few Muslim clerics.

“This is a big door for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of jobs and for tens of billions if not hundreds of billions” of riyals, he added.

Al-Sheikh said the kingdom aims to become among the top 10 global entertainment destinations and in the top four in Asia, but provided no timeline and few concrete figures for his targets.

Officials have previously said that reforms aim to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas every year by Saudis seeking entertainment.

Last year, GEA said infrastructure investments over the next decade would reach 240 billion riyals ($64 billion) that would contribute 18 billion riyals to annual gross domestic product and generate 224,000 new jobs by 2030.

Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Marwa Rashad; Editing by Leslie Adler