The cultural and economic reforms undergone by Saudi Arabia since 2016 are perhaps most visible in the entertainment sector. For over three decades entertainment and cultural outlets such as cinemas, art galleries and theatres were banned. So too were artistic practices including filmmaking and live music. Since being elevated to a position of executive importance, however, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has lifted restrictions and targeted the creation of a vibrant arts and entertainment scene as a means to propel tourism, improve the quality of life for citizens and raise international awareness of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly open economy. Meanwhile, multiple largescale projects are in the works to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s arts and entertainment capacities and portfolio. In addition, the creation of local artistic content, the promotion and preservation of Saudi culture and heritage, and the development of creative and sporting talent among the Kingdom’s youthful population are being targeted to drive economic growth.
Development & Licensing
The General Entertainment Authority (GEA) was established in 2016 and is responsible for regulating and developing the entertainment sector. It plays an active role in encouraging the private sector to expand the Kingdom’s entertainment activities, while also issuing licences and permits for entertainment-related companies and events. By 2021 the GEA had overseen the direct creation of around 145,000 permanent and temporary jobs spread across approximately 5500 firms. In those six years, the Kingdom held more than 3800 separate events, many of which ran multi-day schedules, bringing a total of more than 80,000 event days. In addition, 530 permanent venues were established and more than 6000 licences and permits issued, of which 2375 were issued in 2021. Moreover, considering the easing of Covid-19-related restrictions, in 2021 the GEA issued regulatory updates to areas such as controls and standards, licence regulations, licence requirements and safety protocols.
The accelerated rate of licence and permit approval is due in large part to the launch of the GEA’s Entertainment Portal, accessible through its main website. The platform offers online permit and licensing services, streamlining a previously time-consuming activity. Digital technology is also being harnessed to connect with Saudi Arabia’s large and youthful consumer market. Enjoy.sa is an online platform established by the GEA to serve as a reference for all entertainment activities in the Kingdom, listing information relating to current and upcoming events and shows. In July 2022 the GEA took a more direct approach with Enjoy.sa, establishing a number of interactive pavilions in shopping malls in order to aid information dissemination.
The Ministry of Culture (MoC) was launched in 2018 to help establish a thriving arts and culture scene across the country that enriches lives, celebrates national identity and builds understanding between people. Commissions related to culinary arts; literature, publishing and translation; theatre and performing arts; fashion; architecture and design; film commission; heritage; libraries; museums; music; and visual arts all function under the purview of the MoC.
Additionally, the General Sports Authority was restructured and rebranded as the Ministry of Sports (MoS) in 2020. The ministry’s duties see it working to expand the base of sport practitioners and participants within the Kingdom, oversee the development of sport facilities and infrastructure, and play a key role in securing and promoting sporting events to be held in Saudi Arabia. Between 2015 and 2021 the number of sport federations across the Kingdom rose from 32 to 91, and the government has set the target of increasing its sport industry’s contribution to GDP by 0.8% and boosting participation to 40% by 2030.
The overarching plan for the expansion of the leisure, culture and entertainment industries is a core component of the Quality of Life Programme – one of the government’s Vision Realisation Programmes, which are designed to facilitate the realisation of Vision 2030. Through the Quality of Life Programme the government is promoting creative engagement, cultural enrichment and healthier lifestyles.
The GEA’s own long-term development plan runs through to 2030 and is in the second of three phases. The current phase sees the organisation building on the foundation of entertainment and cultural offerings established over the past six years. It aims to do this by boosting local content through opportunity and human resource development, refining regulations, increasing exposure both locally and internationally, and attracting private investment in the following four areas: venues and destinations; services and technology; unique events; and talent development.
Accordingly, the GEA’s Happiness Creators initiative incorporates a number of talent competitions and education and training programmes for citizens at different stages of education, and for those who have entered the workforce. Enrolment onto the GEA’s diploma, scholarship, fellowship and leadership programmes is limited to 350, 60, 60 and 30 annual participants, respectively. However, it has set the target of enrolling 100,000 participants through its online training platform, which will offer courses in visitor greeting, crowd management, safety and security, event organisation and event promotion. By 2030 the government aims to achieve global prominence as a entertainment centre, driven by an ecosystem of local and international companies and investors. To aid that goal, the GEA has set its sights on assembling a total entertainment sector workforce of 420,000 permanent employees. As of mid-2022 that figure was around 150,000, with part-time workers accounting for a high proportion.
The Kingdom has also developed a national cultural vision. This aims to promote culture as a way of life, enabling culture to contribute to economic growth, and creating opportunities for international cultural exchange, with the MoC focusing on developing the areas covered by the aforementioned commissions.
The entertainment, culture and tourism industries are being utilised to meet diversification goals. The government seeks to attract 100m domestic and international visitors per year by 2030, and to facilitate such growth, tourist e-visas are now available to passport holders from 49 countries. This, in turn, is driving demand for a broader portfolio of entertainment activities and attractions. The Kingdom has also been working to increase the number of registered sites in the UNESCO World Heritage site list, which now includes the Al Ahsa oasis; the Al Hijr archaeological site; the At Turaif district in Diriyah; the Hima cultural area; historic Jeddah; and rock art in the Hail Region. The Saudi Tourism Development Fund has launched initiatives aimed at attracting investment in the Kingdom’s development plans for the areas containing those sites.
In February 2022 the MoC and the GEA signed an agreement that aims to increase cooperation in the development of the culture and entertainment sectors. The agreement focuses on investing in both industries, jointly performing recreational activities, developing capacities, classifying cultural and entertainment professions, issuing licences and permits, and approving content.
The GEA has signed a number of other agreements aimed at improving intergovernmental collaboration in the development of a thriving entertainment sector. Among these is a memorandum of understanding with the King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority that will see the two organisations coordinate in relation to activities and events that take place inside the 130,000-sq-km King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Natural Reserve, which contains both natural and synthetic aspects of the local culture and heritage.
In addition, July 2022 saw the GEA partner with the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) Financing Guarantee Programme to provide funding for SMEs operating in the entertainment sector. Amounts of up to SR15m ($4m) are accessible from a total fund of SR500m ($133.3m). The government is guaranteeing up to 90% of the individual loans in order to give banks and financing companies confidence in lending to SMEs. The scheme is designed to strengthen the sector’s foundations and supply chain services. “Events companies that require short-term capital and that make quick, healthy profits are one type of business that will benefit from the loans,” Ali Alamri, chief strategy officer at the GEA, told OBG. “Also, permanent entertainment centres seeking business expansion, and business-to-business management and services companies will be key beneficiaries.”
A host of other financing solutions are available to entrepreneurs and enterprises that either wish to enter, or are already operating in, the local entertainment space. Social Development Bank, for example, offers affordable loans of up to SR8m ($2.1m) for project development, while other Saudi financial players offer a range of banking, funding and salary support services tailored to entertainment-related companies and market entrants. Meanwhile, through its Investment and Business Development Department, the GEA itself offers multiple services aimed at facilitating stabilisation and growth for entertainment-related SMEs.
Public Investment & Initiatives
The GEA is set to invest SR240bn ($64bn) in the entertainment sector between 2020 and 2030, a figure it announced to international media in February 2018. According to a May 2021 study by US company Research and Markets, the entertainment and amusement sector is forecast to be worth SR4.5bn ($1.2bn) by 2030, with a rapid growth trajectory expected across this decade.
Meanwhile, in November 2021 the MoS launched a SR2.6bn ($693.2m) programme aimed at developing sport infrastructure and federations, and improving the Kingdom’s capacity to produce internationally competitive athletes. In order to receive a portion of the funding, federations must meet specific criteria. Additional financial rewards are available for federations that produce athletes who win medals at showpiece international events. To that end, the MoS has launched elite athlete training programmes and initiated its Sports Career Day in January 2022 to raise public awareness of employment opportunities within the sport industry.
The Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, is looking to extend Saudi Arabia’s presence in the entertainment and sporting arena internationally. In April 2020 the PIF paid SR1.9bn ($500m) for a 5.7% stake in US-based event promotion and ticket sales platform Live Nation Entertainment, which also owns multiple international event venues and manages the careers of global musicians. Furthermore, in October 2021 the PIF provided 80% of the funding for the $300m purchase of the Newcastle United Football Club, while 2022 was the first year of the PIF’s LIV golf tour, which is designed to run alongside established tournaments including the PGA Tour.
A number of major contracts were signed in late 2021 and early 2022 for the Qiddiya giga-project – a vast entertainment city 45 km southwest of Riyadh that will be Saudi Arabia’s capital of entertainment, sport and culture. It is set to be the world’s largest entertainment city. The 367-sq-km site is expected to contribute up to SR17bn ($4.5bn) to the country’s GDP by 2030, and aims to attract 17m visitors a year by 2030 and create 25,000 jobs. Qiddiya seeks to retain a significant portion of the revenue Saudis spend on outbound tourism annually and provide entertainment for Saudi Arabia’s young population.
In December 2021 a SR3.75bn ($999.8m) contract was awarded to a joint venture (JV) between Saudi Arabia’s Almabani General Contractors and France’s Bouygues Bâtiment International to build a Six Flags theme park at Qiddiya. Additionally, in February 2022 a SR2.8bn ($750m) contract was signed to build the Qiddiya Water Theme Park, which will be Saudi Arabia’s first and the region’s largest water theme park. The contract was awarded to ALEC Engineering and Contracting and El Seif Engineering Contracting in a JV between the two companies.
Other significant entertainment, culture and leisure destinations currently in the works include the SR75bn ($20bn) Jeddah Central project; the 135-km-long, multi-district Sports Boulevard across Riyadh; and King Salman Park in Riyadh, which is set to become the world’s largest urban park at four times the size of New York’s Central Park. These projects will offer an array of arts centres, studios, theatres, cinemas, sport arenas, sport and recreation facilities, libraries, museums, opera houses and residential developments.
A series of entertainment festivals known as Saudi Seasons were launched in 2019 and are held across the country during different times of the year. During its inaugural year 11 such festivals were held, with the largest being the Riyadh Season. The most recent Riyadh Season was held between October 2021 and March 2022. It involved over 1400 companies, 5000 performers and participants, and reported over 14m attendees, with approximately 1.3m international and 13m domestic visitors. The festival incorporated thousands of music, art, culture, food and sporting events across 13 zones, spanning 5.4 sq km. It created an estimated 155,000 direct and indirect jobs and featured in over 41,000 international media posts. The 2022 Jeddah Season was launched in May and received more than 200,000 visitors in its first three days.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s first biennial contemporary art exhibition, the Diriyah Biennale, took place between December 2021 and March 2022, and featured over 60 artists, with nearly half of them nationals. Additionally, the inaugural edition of the Saudi Design Festival took place over three weeks in Diriyah in January 2022. These developments, among others, are having a significant impact on the expansion and opening up of social life within the Kingdom.
Cinema & Film Industry
Since cinemas were reopened in 2018, the Saudi population has demonstrated considerable interest in both local and international film. Indeed, in 2021 the Saudi box office grossed SR892.7m ($238m). As of March 2022 Saudi Arabia housed more than 50 cinemas comprising 430 screens. Multinational entertainment organisations such as Vox, Cinepolis, AMC and Empire have opened branches in Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom also established its first cinema brand, Muvi. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media estimates that by 2030 the country will host 2600 cinema screens.
In spite of the success enjoyed by cinemas, streaming is the Kingdom’s most popular film distribution channel. Content creation has been identified as a market with high growth potential, and Saudi filmmakers have been returning home to work since the Kingdom’s cultural reforms were introduced. Saudi series Takki, originally a YouTube hit, is now in its third season on Netflix. The streaming giant has signed Telfaz11, the company that created Takki, to an eight-film deal. Meanwhile, the Saudi government is offering incentives to international filmmakers to entice them to shoot films in the Kingdom. Two Hollywood thrillers have been shot recently in Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) Red Sea Fund has backed over 100 Arab and African directors with grants worth SR52.5m ($14m).
The Kingdom hosted the inaugural RSIFF in Jeddah in 2019. The most recent edition was held in December 2021 and attracted over 30,000 fans, showing 138 films from 67 different countries. Of those films, 48 were Arab premieres while 27 were Saudi productions. While the RSIFF is a high-profile commercial event, both it and the Saudi Film Festival (SFF) seek to introduce Saudis to different aspects of the film industry, with the aim to boost local engagement, skills development and content creation. The SFF ran its seventh edition in July 2021, featuring 36 local films.
Digital Media & Gaming
The Kingdom’s digital content creation aspirations reach beyond the big screen. In 2020 the government established Saudi Media City in Riyadh, with additional branches planned for Jeddah and the Eastern Region. Social media and television channels, podcasts, publishing and various other forms of media production will be carried across the facilities, with each designed to attract international investment, support SMEs and bolster job creation and human capital development. In addition, the Saudi video gaming market – worth around SR3.6bn ($959m) in 2020 – is forecast to undergo considerable growth in the coming years, with around 67% of the Kingdom’s population engaged with some form of electronic gaming. By 2030 the market is expected to reach a value of SR25.5bn ($6.8bn). Notably, the PIF has acquired stocks worth a combined SR11.3bn ($3bn) in US video game makers Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and Take-Two Interactive Software, which produce a selection of the highest-selling, multi-platform titles.
The government is ramping up efforts to attract investment, which, given the rate of progress to date and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly favourable business environment, should prove fruitful. There are challenges ahead, as the Kingdom has yet to prove itself as an entertainment destination and it remains to be seen how widely reforms will be adopted by the broader public. However, with a large and youthful population having demonstrated significant appetite for entertainment in recent years, anticipated projects are set to result in further broad-based expansion.