As controversy began brewing over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform campaign months ago, which in part targets the kingdom’s lagging and some might say ‘medieval’ entertainment industry for rapid modernization, a media adviser to the royal court attempted to calm conservatives by assuring them the kingdom was on the path of “moderation without moral breakdown”.
However, after the latest scandal involving a “naked” female circus performer which resulted in the head of the Saudi entertainment authority being sacked on Monday, it appears we are headed toward just plain “breakdown” of MbS’ much-vaunted plan to overhaul the entertainment sector by pumping in $64 billion in the coming decade.
The initiative started in February when the General Entertainment Authority announced plans to host more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, while enacting MbS modernization program which involves relaxed restrictions on women’s access to venues like cinemas and concerts.
The project aims to redirect the billions of dollars lost to neighboring tourist destinations like Dubai and Bahrain as many young Saudis seek their more relaxed atmosphere of cinemas and amusement parks with fewer restrictions.
But fierce backlash has resulted in the head of the initiative being fired after a viral video of a recent circus performance in Riyadh unleashed controversy as it featured female performers wearing figure-hugging leotards.
Cynics who lightly dismiss the colossal challenges that MBS faces in his social reforms should view this video (In Arabic) of young Saudi men passionately denouncing the presence of a Russian circus with women performers in their country. https://t.co/cmVW851C4v
— Ali Shihabi (@aliShihabi) June 18, 2018
In one clip, a woman is featured wearing a pink tight-fitting costume walking near men in the audience, but which much of the rest of the world would find modest for such a performance; and another woman performing on a trapeze is similarly dressed.
Islamic conservatives in the kingdom which has Wahhabism as its official state religion are outraged and have denounced the video. An Arabic hashtag on Twitter which translates to “Naked Russian Ladies in Riyadh” was trending in Saudi Arabia on Monday accompanied by mostly angry comments in response to the women in form fitting attire.
There’s a hashtag on Saudi social media which translates into #Naked_Russian_Ladies_In_Riyadh. It refers to the circus performer in this video. This coincides with the sacking of the head of the entertainment authority. These people will never get out of the medieval ages. #KSA https://t.co/hXNSaQIEcB
— Walid (@walid970721) June 19, 2018
The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) issued an announcement on twitter while citing a royal decree: “Ahmad al-Khatib, chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, has been removed from his position.” But the statement didn’t give a reason for Khatib’s sacking.
However, the pro-government Sabq news site cited the controversial circus performance in Riyadh featuring women with “indecent clothes” as the reason for the firing.
Saudi #Entertainment Chief sacked after outrage over #Circus show where women were reported to be wearing indecent cloths. Motto officially stated after the sacking was “moderation without moral breakdown”. #society #culture #gender https://t.co/BB3AZUwSCa
— SP Shukla (@Prakashukla) June 19, 2018
In one widely circulated edited version of the video, a young Saudi man narrates reasons why the “lust-filled” spectacle is “unIslamic” while cutting in and out of the circus footage.
This isn’t the first time that MbS’ attempted broad image overhaul of religion and culture has come under attack. In April the sports authority apologized for a WWE promotional video which aired on big screens before a sellout ‘Royal Rumble’ crowd at Prince Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah.
— TheHuggateers😋 (@BayleyPromoWWE) April 28, 2018
Though WWE prevented female wrestlers from being part of the live event, a scantily clad Sasha Banks was featured in the advertisement which ran in the middle of the event, outraging conservatives.
The WWE video which angered Saudis, prompting the government to ban all related promotional items, including posters:
A government statement condemned the promo video, calling it “indecent”: “The General Sport Authority would like to apologize to the viewers and attendees of the WWE event that took place in Jeddah, over the indecent scene involving women that appeared as an ad before a segment,” it read.
And during the same month, a female fitness center in Riyadh was shut down due to complaints about tight gym clothes after its social media promotion video hit the web.
The video featured a female narrator dancing and doing kickboxing moves in front of the camera while wearing workout leggings.
The Riyadh gym incident is what prompted Saud al-Qahtani, a media adviser to the royal court, to reassure the public that Saudi Arabia seeks a path of reform involving “moderation without moral breakdown”.
Typically, Saudi women are required to wear body-shrouding abaya robes in public and be accompanied by male guardians, even if this involves visits to outdoor settings like the beach.
As recent events prove MbS is facing a major battle and backlash on the domestic front with his top-down attempts at cultural and religious reform, there likely won’t be any more “naked” circus performers coming through Riyadh anytime soon.