About two-thirds of the Saudi population of 34 million are under 35 with more disposable income than their peers in Jordan, Egypt, and other populous Arabic-speaking nations.
They live in a country with roughly 95% internet penetration and widespread fast Wi-Fi.
And Netflix, available in the kingdom since 2016, looms large in their wired world. “It’s become the lifestyle,” says Amer Abu-Elhaija, 32, an executive at Myrkott. “It’s like, I have a phone, I drink tea and coffee, and I have a Netflix subscription … That’s the new Saudi.”
Back in October 2017, and for nearly 35 years prior, there were no movie theaters in operation.
Change came quickly under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) whose Vision 2030 calls for massively boosting private enterprise, building out healthcare, and creating entirely new tourism and entertainment sectors.
Vision 2030 aims to double the share of domestic household spending that goes on Saudi entertainment to six percent by 2030.
The big screen
In April 2018, the country’s first new cinema, operated by AMC, opened in Riyadh, showing the Disney Marvel universe epic Black Panther.
Today, there are dozens of theaters, often packed, around Saudi. More than 350 cinemas could open by 2030, including 30 multiplexes from UK operator Vue International, and more from US-based AMC Entertainment, which has signed a provisional agreement with PIF.
UAE-based chain VOX Cinemas also plans to build 600 screens across the Kingdom by 2023 as part of a $533 million investment.
Home-grown cinema brands have also thrived, with MUVI Cinemas in April announcing a $221.5 mn expansion plan for 2021. The company plans to grow to 307 screens nationwide over the next 12 months, launching 23 new sites in eight key Saudi regions.
Saudi entities also built bigger stakes in TV and film. The PIF bought nearly $500 mn worth of Disney shares in May 2020, and in December a Saudi bank with government backing plowed $50 mn into AGBO, the production company of Joseph and Anthony Russo, directors of one of the biggest-ever box-office earners, Avengers: Endgame.
Moviemakers have, for the first time, begun shooting on Saudi territory. The Russo brothers filmed scenes of their drama Cherry, which came out earlier this year, near the Saudi ancient desert city of AlUla.
The upcoming spy thriller Kandahar, partly financed by Saudi media conglomerate MBC, is scheduled to shoot later in 2021.
And this December, Saudi officials will inaugurate the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, headed by producer Mohammed Al Turki, 35, who built his career in Hollywood.
General entertainment for all
Saudi is also making live pop music widely accessible for the first time. In 2019, K-pop megastars BTS packed the 60,000-seat national stadium; Mariah Carey and the Black Eyed Peas also performed in the country.
Government authorities have also broken ground on Six Flags Qiddiya, a 129-square-mile entertainment and sports complex whose area is double the size of Walt Disney World. Saudi officials say Qiddiya’s infrastructure alone will cost an estimated $8 billion.
Work started in January on the design for Falcon’s Flight, the record-breaking roller coaster set to be the flagship attraction at the theme park, which is scheduled to open in 2023 and will feature 28 rides and attractions across six themed lands.
In February, golf legend Jack Nicklaus also announced that he was designing a course at Qiddiya, marking his first golf design project in the Kingdom.
“Qiddiya, a giga-project whose vision stems from the overarching Saudi Vision 2030, is destined to become the capital of Entertainment, Sports and the Arts,” Phillipe Gas, CEO of Qiddiya, told Arab News.
“It will be a disruptive destination recognized on the world stage as the home of the most innovative and immersive experiences, integrated on a scale never been seen before. It will be a celebration of life, a place where families, friends, and couples spend quality time together and create unforgettable memories.”
In April 2020, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) invested $500 million in Live Nation, an American global entertainment company, giving it a 5.7% share in it.
These companies could feed young Saudis’ appetite for diversion.
More entertainment investment coming
The kingdom is planning to invest $64 bn in its entertainment industry over the coming decade to reduce its dependency on oil.
Mohamed Alkhateeb, Analyst at JLL in Saudi, says: “The goal of the entertainment fund is to build Saudi Arabia’s much-needed tourism infrastructure. The government is providing financial backing, but there are many opportunities for the private sector to get involved in the development and operation of new leisure facilities – whether that’s opera houses, concert halls, cinemas or museums.”
Saudi Arabia has already taken steps to make its entertainment ambitions a reality. Riyadh will become home to two major malls, including the Mall of Saudi with 300,000 square meters of retail and entertainment space.
The Saudi entertainment and amusement sector is forecast to be worth $1.17 bn by 2030 and grow by a massive 47.5% per year, according to a new industry report.
The US-based Research and Markets study said that the growth compares with just $23.77 mn in 2020.
“The entertainment industry of Saudi Arabia is growing massively with a world-class entertainment hub that includes innovative rides, cultural or historical attractions, and mega sporting events,” the report said.
Recently, Saudi General Sports Authority (GAE) chairman Turki bin Abdulmohsen Al-Sheikh announced the results of the “Ideas for Entertainment” initiative. From the more than 12,000 proposals submitted to the project, the top 20 ideas were selected.
The top submission was “The Grove,” which is described as “a rich experience encompassing an array of activities such as theatrical and musical performances, hiking expeditions and more.”