The reformist tone among Saudi clerics is a reflection of the so-called modernisation process taking place within the Saudi kingdom.
At the launch of 2019 entertainment calendar, Turki al Sheikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) listed dozens of events the Saudi kingdom hopes to organise throughout the year, including an NBA basketball game and a Spanish-style running of the bulls.
The Saudi chairman, standing on the stage proudly, said the kingdom aims to be among the top 10 global entertainment destinations in the world.
“This is a big door for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of jobs and for tens of billions if not hundreds of billions [of riyals],” he added.
In keeping with the new focus on entertainment, a motorsports event was held in Riyadh last December with an after-party performance by famous DJ David Guetta. Such a drastic change was once unimaginable in a country where the moral police used to crack down on underground music events and chase after young men on the streets playing loud music in their cars.
"MBS [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] may have borrowed from the playbook of the ancient Roman empire, which hoped 'panem et circenses' – bread and games – would be enough to make citizens acquiescent," said Cinzia Bianco, a Middle East analyst at Gulf State Analytics.
"The belief is that if they are engrossed in worries about making money and having fun, they will have no interest in politics and dissent", said Bianco.
The kingdom’s bold step into entertainment is a part of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan, which has been perceived as a landmark change that would eventually transform Saudi society into one that is more liberalised and open.
Oil revenues have long been the main source of income for the kingdom. However, the oil-dependent business model has come under strain due to a growing population and a global decrease in oil prices.
Through Vision 2030, MBS aims to diversify the kingdom’s economy and liberate it from its dependence on oil, creating new industries with an emphasis on tourism and entertainment, much like the UAE and Qatar have done in recent years.
Entertainment, in particular, is being used as a driving force behind the transformation of the Saudi economy. In Saudi Arabia two-thirds of the population is below the age of 30 and Saudis spend more than $5 billion annually on overseas leisure travel.
However, building a tourism industry and hosting music events in a country where the Wahhabi clergy has an enormous influence on the country’s socio-political sphere is likely to create a strain between religious and political authorities in the country; unless the clerics can give MBS’s reforms religious legitimacy.
Over the years, as the kingdom’s political establishment lifted restrictions on cultural life, the Wahhabi clerics also softened their approach towards previously prohibited or frowned-upon activities.
For example, the former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Adil al Kalbani, one of the most prominent figures among the Saudi clergy, repeatedly argued that music is not prohibited. Kalbani, last April, appeared at the kingdom’s first ever Baloot tournament, a popular card game in Saudi Arabia, despite strong opposition. He faced criticism for photos that went viral showing him dealing cards.
More recently Sheikh Saleh al Maghamsi also claimed that music is not haram, but singing is. The reasoning behind the decision is a claim that "the nation is in bad need of novelty and modernisation”, referring to MBS’s reform plans.
Ahmed bin Qassim al Ghamdi is also among the top clerics who stressed that music is not prohibited in Islam. Ghamdi, also claimed last year that Muslims can celebrate Valentine’s Day if they want to.
Since the mid-18th Century, the Wahhabi establishment has been very close to the al Saud dynasty, providing it Islamic legitimacy in every step of the governmental process. Despite the fact that the religious establishment is still occupied by the mainstream scholars who control much of the legal system in the kingdom, reformist ideas among the scholars are becoming louder. In contrast to classical scholars, reformist clerics have publicly stood against the ban on women’s right to drive and freedom of the consumption and production of music. The reformist tone among the Saudi clerics is a reflection of the so-called modernisation process within the Saudi kingdom.