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The nightclub problem: In Saudi Arabia, youth entertainment is a catch-22

Saudi arabia- halal nightclub
Saudi women attend a concert in the western city of Jeddah on March 30, 2018. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ Amer HILABI

The Saudi Arabian youth was ready for the long-awaited and heavily announced first ‘halal’ nightclub of the Kingdom to open on June 13, 2019, only to see it shut down right away and reopened a few days later. It’s the consequence of a backlash from the country’s religious authorities that don’t see with a good eye entertainment venues welcoming both men and women to dance in the same space.

Officially, the closure of Saudi Arabia’s first nightclub, referred to as Project X, is due to the fact that it didn’t receive the necessary license to operate, according to Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA). Founded in May 2016 through a royal decree by King Salman, in order to transform 25% of the yearly 22 billions dollars the Saudi population spends in tourism and entertainment abroad into local travel and entertainment expenses, the GEA defines the vision and evolution of Saudi Arabia’s entertainment industry.  In a statement, the GEA said: “According to information provided to the GEA, the event (Project X) is in violation of the legal procedures and regulations in force, and has not been authorized by the body”. GEA had “originally issued a license for another event”, the statement said. “Its contractor then took advantage of an extension of that license to commit these serious and unacceptable violations”.

The venue, owned by the WHITE brand, which also owns a very popular Dubai nightclub, is currently under investigation after social media videos of the event sparked controversy and raised questions over the nature of the event and the venue. Many social media users, and some regional media outlets, have described the event as the opening of a famous nightclub; though insisting that it was not going to serve alcohol. Videos of women and men dancing in the same area sparked outrage in the Kingdom. Project X is part of the Jeddah Season festival, as the waterfront events are called X Jed and X Jeddah. Even though GEA mentioned the circulation of videos online, WHITE was never mentioned by name. According to our sources, another event hosting international DJs took place before the Project X opening. People were taking photos and videos and the organizers didn’t have a license. But nothing is confirmed yet.

The CEO of the venue, Tony Habre, told the news website Arabian Business that the club would be a “high-end cafe and lounge”, adding that: “The Saudi market will be great, because the local community goes out a lot. You have people in the country who go out a lot”. WHITE already has nightclubs in Beirut and Dubai, and the opening of the Jeddah venue was awaited by an estimation of over 2000 first impatient attendants.

Other people were perplex at the idea of a halal nightclub, wondering how it could respect all the aspects of the term. In the tourism industry, for example, “halal” refers to a sub-category of tourism that is aligned with the laws and traditions of Islam, including restaurants that do not serve pork or alcohol and hotels that offer separate spas and pools for men and women. Clearly, a dancing space for both women and men does not respect this criteria.

This controversy comes after a seemingly opening of the Kingdom towards live entertainment. On May 6, the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, or the Shura Council, approved the provision of sheesha products in the restaurants and cafes of Saudi cities, “according to specific regulations,” the Saudi newspaper Ajel reported. In January, Turki Al-Sheikh, the Chairman of the General Authority for Entertainment, promised that his country will issue licenses for live shows in cafes and restaurants. “We accept applications for licensing of live shows in restaurants and cafes,” he said. It aims to allow restaurants and cafes to hold live concerts and other shows, as part of the reforms promised by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) for his 2030 reform plan.

In January 2019, the Kingdom has also announced a massive entertainment program, with the country welcoming international performances, from Japan’s Takeshi’s Castle and Crystal Maze to NBA basketball games and The Lion King musical. As part of Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Programme, Riyadh aims to offer its considerable young population new employment options in different fields. The events are expected to spur the economy and employ Saudis in event planning, the arts and other pursuits, by hosting more competitions, exhibitions, bazaars, stand-up comedy shows and themed attractions. There will also be a push for local and regional entertainment, and the government announced it will provide smaller venues to allow license-holders to host their own events, in a move aimed at supporting a home-grown, independent arts scene. The Project X event was part of those first licenses given.

In a more general space than entertainment, Saudi Arabia now aims to police its citizens’ behavior with a new public decency law approved by cabinet in April, though it remains unclear when it will be enforced. The law seeks to uphold Saudi “values and principles”, banning in public clothing deemed to “offend public tastes”, like men wearing shorts, and graffiti that could be interpreted as “harmful”, according to local media. Violators reportedly risk facing a fine of up to 5,000 riyals (USD 1,333). The Saudi government is in a system of balancing between what they perceive as dissident clerics, whom they simply arrest, and smoothing resistance that could come from conservative groups. On International Policy Digest, author Nader Habibi wrote on June 23 that: “The religious and conservative sentiments represent a major challenge to the cultural reforms and entertainment culture in Vision 2030. In general, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been successful in convincing the formal religious authorities of the Kingdom to refrain from denouncing the Vision 2030 social programs. In other cases, they have arrested conservative Islamists who have voiced opposition to political repression or liberal social reforms. Yet at the same time, they have also shown sensitivity to public sentiments about government policies that are expressed on social media.”

The Saudi ambitions face a well-known reality: the rigidity of a society and authorities raised and existing only for the sake of preserving religion against ‘sin’ or ‘temptation to sin’. Once again, MBS’ ambitions and the apparent opening of Saudi society are facing reality: within a conservative country, basic entertainment is one step away of being subsersive. The nightclub might exist for another few events, but who knows long it can sustain the opposition.

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©AFP ⁃ Amer HILABI | ©AFP ⁃ Amer HILABI

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