May 3, 2018 / 9:18 PM / in 7 months

Saudi Arabia launches initiative to improve country's lifestyle

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia plans to spend 50 billion riyals ($13.33 billion) by 2020 on an initiative to promote entertainment, health, sports and education as part of a modernizing drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses as he arrives at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

At an event in Riyadh on Thursday, Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said the program, called Quality of Life, should generate 300,000 jobs by 2020, most of which will come under the General Sports Authority.

“The initiatives will cost a total of 50 billion riyals, and government spending will be around 60 percent, with 40 percent from the private sector,” Khatib told Reuters.

“The entire benefit from this big spending will be for the private sector, and this supports the 2030 Vision that strengthens the role of the private sector.”

The kingdom has undergone many changes in recent months, holding concerts and opening cinemas. The moves in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom are hailed as proof of progress spearheaded by Prince Mohammed, who has appealed to the young since he ascended to power.

The kingdom’s strict social customs and rapid development created a nation in which community is highly valued but opportunities for public gathering are scarce. Obesity rates are also high. Many Saudis revere the harsh life of the country’s Bedouin forebears.

Saudi citizens have no vote and falling oil income means economic horizons may contract in coming years. As a result, improving the quality of life is seen as important for ensuring political stability.

International human rights groups also urge the kingdom to improve its treatment of human rights advocates, stop executions and cancel its pervasive system of male guardianship.

At the event, Khatib listed a water park, three theme parks, museums and more cinemas as projects in the initiative, which is itself part of a National Transformation Plan that includes hundreds of steps to modernize the economy and society by 2020.

Retired French footballer Thierry Henry, American actress Katie Holmes and British actor Idris Elba attended the event, invited to promote the initiative and Saudi Arabia’s image to an international audience.

Saudi female fencer Lubna al-Omair told the crowd she enjoyed riding her bike and going to museums when she did her master’s abroad.

“One of the things I was worried I would lose (when I moved back) was the sport I had gotten attached to and that had become a part of me,” she said, adding that now she could practice fencing.

Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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