Interview : Amr Banaja
What are the key elements that have been able to jump-start the entertainment industry?
AMR BANAJA: In the context of Saudi Vision 2030 the entertainment sector aspires to be at the forefront of economic diversification. However, this is a new sector in the Kingdom, and there is still much to be done.
First, the process needs to be streamlined across all government entities to ensure that the end benefit is achieved and licensed business owners are served properly. As such, while the GEA focuses on its regulatory role, there are many other entities involved in the process, such as the General Sports Authority, the General Culture Authority and all municipalities across the Kingdom. The second step has been to identify the main entertainment offerings and activities, which have been divided into seven segments with multiple subsegments. Some projects, like live events which are supplied extensively by the GEA, are developed over the short term, while others, such as theme parks, waterparks, entertainment clusters and cities, take longer. Lastly, funding is an important element. There are a number of enablers playing an important role – one of them is the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The PIF has established an entertainment company, built venues and launched a giga-project called Qiddiya, which focuses on entertainment for a mass audience. Whether it is a local small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) or a large-scale foreign investor partnering with PIF, the private sector is set to play a large role.
How attractive is recreational infrastructure development to the private sector?
BANAJA: Saudi Arabia is lacking entertainment infrastructure such as theme parks, waterparks, museums, opera houses, sporting venues and recreational sports and family entertainment centres. There are many opportunities for the private sector to meet this demand. There is also the potential to form partnerships with local investors from larger projects like Qiddiya or smaller-scale projects including street festivals and live shows. Establishing an authority is proof to investors that Saudi Arabia is laying the groundwork for a nascent and fast-developing entertainment sector. In order to minimise risks linked to any potential investment, the GEA is making sure that there is a clear legal framework and licensing process in place.
What partnerships are in place to ensure the longterm success of the entertainment industry?
BANAJA: Memorandums of understanding have been signed with international partners such as Six Flags, and we are also in advanced talks with Disneyland. Other players such as Marvel, National Geographic and Cirque du Soleil have already explicitly expressed interest in Saudi Arabia. A Formula E racing event is also set to take place in Ad Diriyah. For this particular event, fans from all over the world will be able to apply for an instant online visa, like visitors to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Prior to this, obtaining a visa had been complicated.
However, it is not just a matter of bringing Western culture to Saudi Arabia. A focus has been placed on local content development, and a large number of variables are taken into account while building entertainment infrastructure. Saudi Arabia is a vast and diverse country; every city is unique and offerings must be adapted to each of the different region’s interests.
How can the local population acquire skills that can be applied to the entertainment sector?
BANAJA: One of our primary objectives is to build a sustainable sector and to ensure that locals are ready to take on newly created jobs. This is a common challenge for entertainment sectors in many countries. Saudi Arabia’s advantage is that its population is young and tech-savvy. This is essential because not only are event managers needed, but also lighting and sound technicians. Programmes are being developed to ensure that local training is directed towards the current skills gap.
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