Tough mudder, the Smurfs and beard trimming: how Saudi Arabia’s culture is westernising for the sake of money

“In this country, there is nothing else to do than restaurants and shopping” said a young Saudi mum to me last week, during an in-home visit in Jeddah doing research for a client.

In such ultra conservative society, indeed there is not much fun to do in Saudi Arabia; but this is about to change, at least if you consider the Western entertainment industry as your version of “fun”.

There are big “2030 Vision” posters everywhere in Jeddah, and this is the chapter about entertainment in a local magazine. “GEA” = General Entertainment Authority.

In an attempt to overhaul its oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia has published an ambitious 2030 Vision that heralds changes in all spheres of life. For the General Entertainment Authority, the objective is simple: make Saudi citizens spend at home what they currently spend when travelling abroad.

Amongst others, Saudi is expecting this year the visit of shows like the Lion King, Monster Truck, Sesame Street, etc.

The first remark you may have, is why all this entertainment just for children? Don’t Saudi grown-ups also have the right for adult entertainment? (no, I don’t mean porn, but at least something more elevated than the Smurfs?)

But you are probably also thinking, isn’t this all contrasting very much with the austerity we imagine the ultra religious Saudi society to live in, which has closed borders to tourism and won’t let women drive a car but will let men marry several of them?

Well, the contrast is to me as sharp as it is difficult to eat fettucini (the latest trendy dish in Jeddah) with a niqab.

Saudi is a “either or” society; it’s either the modesty of a pilgrimage in Mecca or the populist entertainment coming from the West; but there is nothing in between. I wish there was at least the attempt of developing a monetisable Arabic, Middle-Eastern culture; but I guess it is faster to just adopt the well-known recipes of the Western crap.

A Western crap you despise profoundly, but which makes a lot of money, and money you like very much! So who cares if it all changes the face of Saudi Arabia?

Honestly, if your idea of bearded Saudi men is still that of Bin Laden, do me a favour and read this article from the Jeddah magazine. The hipster culture is welcome is Saudi too, as long as it makes people spend money to wash (yes, wash) their facial hair.

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