The Kingdom hosted a string of high-profile events in December, reassuring the world that its liberalisation policy is bearing fruit.
Over the last month, international A-list celebrities from Hilary Swank to Nadine Njeim walked the red carpet in glittering and sometimes plunging gowns generally reserved for the likes of Los Angeles or Paris.
F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton raced for screaming sports fans, and Justin Bieber played his famous hits to a raging, sold-out crowd.
But they were not walking, racing or singing in LA.
Instead, they were in Jeddah, the cultural capital of the blossoming Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, formerly one of the most closed-off countries in the world.
From December 3-5, Jeddah hosted the country’s first Formula One racing event, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Hamilton and Max Verstappen both participated, as did musical extraordinaires like Bieber, ASAP Rocky, and David Guetta.
Regional influencers and stars like Nathalie Fanj and Cynthia Samuel were also in attendance.
“Growing up in the Arab world, big events like this would always be held in Beirut, Cairo, or now in the UAE,” said Nader Khoury, a 28-year-old Lebanese national living in Jeddah who attended the F1.
“So it’s definitely changing the region - if not the world - that these events are being held here. My kids are going to grow up asking if they can go to so-and-so’s concert in Riyadh, which is kind of crazy to think.”
According to Saudi-based Arab News, hotel room rates in Jeddah soared to heights not seen since 2018 during the Grand Prix, with the average room selling for more than $450, or just under three times the average rate. It was a welcome change for hoteliers hit hard by coronavirus-related closures that kept tourists out of the country for 17 months, although, according to Bloomberg, government-promoted tourist sites injected over $2.3 billion into the country’s economy over the summer months, thanks mostly to domestic travel.
For reference, the country hopes to generate $100 billion in tourism, or 10 percent of the Saudi GDP, by 2030.
But in truth, the F1 paled in comparison to the Red Sea Film Festival, which lit up the city with more stardom, glamour and artistry than the country has ever seen.
Held in Jeddah’s Old Town World Heritage Site, the event gathered the region and world’s top celebrities for what would be a celebration of fashion, filmmaking, and Saudi culture.
Many stars, such as models Alessandra Ambrosio and Sara Sampaio, honoured regional designers with their ensembles. Lebanon’s iconic Zuhair Murad was a fan favourite, as was fellow Lebanese designer Monot, worn by Shanina Shaik and Candice Swaepoel, among several others.
According to Iranian film-maker Panah Panahi, whose inaugural feature film “Hit the Road” picked up the Jury award at the festival, the event should instead be seen as a catalyst for change in the traditionally conservative country.
“If Saudi Arabia continues making such festivals, they will surely feel its impact. These festivals will help their culture and traditions expand to the whole world. The whole world will know them better,” Panahi tells TRT World.
It could also set an example for other nations.
“I am so happy that my film was being broadcast in Saudi Arabia without any censors,” Panahi said.
“I hope it will happen in my own country one day.”
Honayda, a Saudi brand crafted by designer Honayda Serafi, also became an instant crowd and social media hit when one of its gowns dazzled on Saudi film-maker and actress Fatima al Banawi. Having only been launched in 2017, Serafi has trailblazed her way through an international market (her dresses have been worn by Priyanka Chopra and Lupita Nyongo, among others) which rarely sees the work of talented Saudi designers.
The films - while diverse in subject and country of origin - were similarly a showcase of Saudi talent, particularly women, many of whom have been leading in the international industry for years, but weren’t yet able to exhibit their films in their home country, as cinemas were banned until 2017.
“When I was a child, watching a movie for me was a dream, and making the first Saudi film was a dream, and being honoured in the first film festival in Saudi Arabia was also a dream,” Haifaa al Mansour told a festival audience.
Al Mansour has long been regarded as Saudi’s first female filmmaker when her debut film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012. At the time, it still was not allowed to be screened in Saudi Arabia.
Nine years later however, she was honoured for the film, which had a special screening at the Red Sea Film Festival.
Saudi invests in the arts
Rahaf Jambi, a Saudi influencer with more than 71,000 followers on Instagram, says the international events taking place in the country are “a mark in history”,’particularly for young artists.
“We are witnessing a lot of changes in the region, and these changes are helping to discover young talents like artists, fashion designers, actors and cinematographers,” she says.
Jambi credits the Saudi Fashion Commission with being a driving force behind the change.
Established in February 2020, the Commission looks to “evolve the Kingdom’s fashion industry through culture, amplifying Saudi heritage and identity, while responding to global needs and impacting the national economy”, through exhibiting, incubating, and offering mentorship for young Saudi talent.
“The Fashion Commission is here to guide the Saudi designers and to represent and showcase our traditional clothes to the world. I really think this is an amazing idea because we do need this. We need something like this that can preserve [our traditional clothes],” says Jambi.
Sister to the Fashion Commission is the Saudi Film Commission. Also launched in 2020, it aims to make the country a go-to destination for film production, with a target revenue of $500 million.
Tuesday, one day prior to the closing of the festival, the Commission announced a 40 percent cash rebate for the production of select films shot in the country, which it hopes will incentivise both local and international movie makers to produce in Saudi Arabia.
Of the announcement, the Commission’s CEO Abdullah Al Eyaf said: “Our ambition is high, we want Saudi to become a global hub for film, creative production, and industry talent.
“The benefits of developing a world-class film industry go beyond the sector and will strengthen the Saudi cultural ecosystem as a whole, driving economic growth and creative jobs across the country.”
Both commissions work in line with Vision 2030, an ambitious economic and social reform project that hopes to diversify the traditionally oil-dependent Saudi economy and increase the quality of life through a variety of overhauls and innovations that hope to attract tourists and investors alike.
Vision 2030 is the brainchild of Saudi’s de-facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, frequently referred to as MBS, who is largely seen as the architect behind Saudi Arabia’s liberalisation.
Of course, neither he nor the events held in Saudi this month are without criticism, with advocates having called on participating celebrities to back out of participating to protest Saudi Arabia’s less-than-stellar human rights record.
A smattering of directors did pull out of the festival for this reason - including Oscar-nominated Canadian director Sami Khan, who said he was “disturbed by the way repressive governments are using the global film industry to launder their reputations”. But the events otherwise went off without attention to any human rights grievances, which the Saudi government has always vehemently denied.