Saudi Arabia

Shall we dance in Jeddah?

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to overhaul its image are continuing. This time, the kingdom is trying to turn itself into a leisure destination with a packed schedule of summer concerts and plans to open alcohol free nightclubs in Jeddah.

VIP evening, on the 15th of June, at Music hall in Jeddah, before the official opening. Photo DR

Houthi missiles and drone attacks have had no noticeable impact. The activities of the Jeddah Season summer festival are in full swing. People who expected low-budget events and strict guidelines have been proven wrong. The General Entertainment Authority (GEA) dreamed big for this year’s festival bringing the most popular artists from the Arab music scene to Saudi Arabia. For several nights, the sky over Jeddah has been illuminated with extravagant fireworks displays marking the closing of the concerts, which took place in the open air on the city’s corniche. Along the promenade, giant, brightly colored letters proclaim “I love Jeddah”, the word “love” having been replaced by a huge red heart. In itself, this detail shows the enormous changes taking place in the country, where absolutely all forms of entertainment were forbidden until a few months ago and the pinnacle of individual freedom used to be walking on the corniche without being reprimanded by the religious police.

E-visa "in 3 minutes"

To prepare for the festivities in Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, the GEA set up an electronic visa system in early June for people holding tickets to the Jeddah Season shows. The system aims to simplify the usual complex and unclear procedures for obtaining an entry visa to the country. Authorities say the process can now be completed online “in three minutes”.

The new visa system and summer festivities are part of an effort to encourage and diversify tourism to Saudi Arabia. Instead of just being the world’s leading site for Islamic pilgrimage, the country wants to become a tourist destination in the Gulf, like Dubai. In the process, Saudi’s leadership is demonstrating a real political will to shatter the theocratic shackles that have led to a public culture of austerity, prohibition and secrecy for decades.

As a first step, last May, the government in Riyadh established a permanent residency system, a revolution in a region where expatriates are required to have a local Saudi to sponsor in order to reside and work in the country. To qualify for what the Saudi press is now calling the “green card”, an expatriate must be over 21 years old, have an advanced educational degree and, most importantly, be rich. The green card, which costs almost 800,000 Riyals (more than $200,000), will allow people who qualify to live in Saudi indefinitely and to own and live in a property for 99 years. There is also a one-year temporary residency system, costing more than $20,000.

Currently, more than 10 million expatriates live and work in Saudi and are subject to the goodwill of their sponsors. The new legislation aims to change the current system, which perpetuates the view and treatment of expatriates as subordinate. The new green card system will also allow foreigners to establish a company without having to partner with a Saudi. Local economist see the change as a financial boost that could generate investments of nearly 100 billion Riyals (more than $26 billion).

"A new page in history"

With the simplified entry to the country, the Jeddah Season Festival is offering a diverse range of events, from concerts and restaurants on the Corniche to a first for the kingdom: the launching of nightclubs, which have recently started to pop up around the city. The performances are taking place in different locations, including the historic city center, or “balad”, Obhur, an area north of the city, and the King Abdullah Sport City, which is about 20 minutes away from Jeddah.

Upscale restaurants have opened in temporary, but chic structures in Sport City, and the first public nightclub was discretely launched there. The club is a reproduction of the Lebanese venue Music Hall and borrows from the design of the Beirut original, including its red curtains and golden-flowered proscenium.

Michel Elefteriades, the founder of Music Hall, told L’Orient-Le Jour by phone that he succeeded in opening his venue in Saudi “within two months”. Meanwhile, he has been in negotiations in European countries “for two years [and] nothing has materialized yet”.

Elefteriades said the only restriction imposed by the organizers of Jeddah Season on the opening of the club is that it be alcohol free. Otherwise, he says that he hasn’t “set the bar any lower than in Kuwait or Jordan”, where the club also has branches. "We have certainly been told to work with discretion,” he said, adding: "It is much more interesting to open in Saudi Arabia than in Mykonos or Ibiza… I think it's human nature to want to have fun and listen to music.”

But as recently as last Saturday, the excitement and fun yet to start. Music Hall’s opening was not yet official, and there were only handpicked VIPs at the club. The parking lot was full of luxury cars, but the atmosphere in Sport City was quiet and subdued. At the door of Music Hall, young Saudi girls wearing yellow vests over their abayas were helping customers. Smiling and welcoming, they were obviously happy to be at the heart of the changes. Inside, Jean Elefteriades, co-owner of the establishment and Michel’s brother, was confident. "Tonight it is quiet because we still do not have a phone line, but people are starting to call to make reservations. I think by next week we should expect about 500 people,” he said. “I am beginning to forget that I am in Saudi Arabia.”

The public’s reaction is excited, but still cautious. “I have lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 10 years. I never thought I would spend an evening in a nightclub without having to travel! It's just amazing,” said an Arab expatriate who requested anonymity. Through tears, a Saudi woman said, "A new page of history is being written.” Another woman rushed to find the owner to discuss the club’s musical program, a broad smile lighting up her face. "I travel to Lebanon for three days and spend two nights at Music Hall," she said.

Despite all the enthusiasm, none of the guests dared to dance. "We do not know what the limits are. What is allowed? What is not? Can we remove our abaya? All this remains very vague," a European expatriate said.

Jean Elefteriades also remains skeptical, and he intends to proceed cautiously. When a group of young Saudi girls got up and started to sway, one of Music Hall’s managers beckoned them to sit down. "Tonight, there were only a hundred people in total, including 50 who were there simultaneously. Many of them got in but then left, so it was still manageable to ask the public not to dance. But when the place will be full, then it will be another story," Elefteriades said.

The Jeddah Season Festival will end on July 18, and the whole structure of the nightclub will have to be dismantled. But rumors are already spreading about an extension. "Some restaurateurs told me that the event could be extended for ten days. This means that we may still be there until the end of July," Elefteriades said.

Pivotal years

2018 was a pivotal year in Saudi. Women were allowed to drive and the first movie theaters opened. 2019 is shaping up to be the year of cultural liberalization and unprecedented openness. But these changes aren’t happening without upheaval, challenge and resistance. One day after a night club, which was originally labeled a lounge, announced that it had opened on the Jeddah Corniche as part of the festival, it had to close its doors for leaking a video of the empty venue. The GEA had specifically asked the organizers to keep a low profile and not make their presence public before the authorities gave the green light.

In the video, a woman’s voice announced the existence of a “halal bar” and “dance floor”. The juxtaposition of the words “bar” and “halal” (meaning “admissible” in Arabic) created an uproar. A few hours later, the GEA issued a press release stating that the venue had "breached the regulations that were agreed on by using the premises for purposes other than those specified in the contract". The club was closed before its inauguration by the international DJ NE-YO.

(This article was originally ublished in French in L'Orient-Le Juor on the 17th of June)

Houthi missiles and drone attacks have had no noticeable impact. The activities of the Jeddah Season summer festival are in full swing. People who expected low-budget events and strict guidelines have been proven wrong. The General Entertainment Authority (GEA) dreamed big for this year’s festival bringing the most popular artists from the Arab music scene to Saudi Arabia. For several nights,...