By Katie Paul
RIYADH (Reuters) – A comic show and a recent pop concert have drawn rebuke from powerful religious figures and social media users in Saudi Arabia this week, highlighting the sensitivity of cultural reforms underway in the conservative kingdom.
Thousands of Saudis – including women – decked out in costumes and face paint attended the country’s first-ever Comic Con in Jeddah on Sunday. The sexes rarely mix in public in a country which adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam.
The event was held by the state-run General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which has bucked some of the Islamic kingdom’s strict social codes to host a series of festivals, comedy shows and concerts this year.
It came weeks after Saudi Arabia saw its first major public concert in over a decade, also in Jeddah. Authorities announced this week that the headline act, Saudi superstar Mohammed Abdo, would perform in the more conservative capital Riyadh in March.
“We were astonished by the hideous act of the Entertainment Authority, by these events held in Jeddah that are not in line with good behavior or our great religion,” Hussein Al-Sheikh, the imam of the Prophet’s Mosque, posted on Twitter.
“It is a duty upon officials to consider God in these actions,” he said, calling on Saudi citizens to boycott events like it.
Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, the former imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, said the state body set up to promote the kingdom’s entertainment drive “violates human nature.”
“Humans are meant to seek refuge in God in times of difficulty,” he wrote.
Tens of thousands of Saudis joined the clerics in critiquing Comic Con and the GEA, elevating the hashtag “a new disaster for entertainment in Riyadh” to Twitter’s list of trending topics there.
The GEA did not respond to requests for comment, but expressed regret in a statement posted by state news agency SPA for an unspecified “violation” by the Comic Con organizer of one of the terms of its permit.
“The violation was detected and stopped at the time, and penalties were issued against the executing body proportionate to the violation,” it said, without elaborating.
The GEA was “keen to maintain values, ethics and traditions, and consider them as a priority in all of its entertainment projects and activities,” it added, and welcomed any suggestions sent via social media.
Riyadh-based Time Entertainment, the organizer of Comic Con, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Saudi Arabia’s clerics offer legitimacy and public support to a king officially known as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites. They retain control of the justice system but leave most other matters of governance to him, so long as his edicts do not contradict their interpretation of Islamic law.
Sheikh and Kalbani are prominent clerics, but are not members of the state-appointed Council of Senior Scholars, the only body in the country authorized to issue official fatwas or Islamic legal opinions. Their comments therefore do not carry legal weight.
Cinemas and public concerts are effectively banned in the kingdom, but the government promised a shake-up of the cultural scene with a set of “Vision 2030” reforms announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year.
Saudi Arabia is now trying to boost its entertainment sector as part of that plan, which aims at creating jobs and weaning the country off its dependence on oil.
Smaller shows and festivals have often sold out and proved immensely popular among Saudi youth.
Senior scholars have for the most part remained mum on plans for the sector, although the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, its highest religious authority, cautioned in January against the corrupting influence of cinemas, concerts and gender mixing.
‘FOOLS DANCING AROUND’
But Comic Con struck a nerve. In the week since the event, social media chatter about the GEA spiked and tens of thousands of users shared pictures of men and women mingling at the show to disparage it as distasteful.
“Our heroes on the southern border are sacrificing their lives and enduring great difficulties to protect the country and fools are dancing around and performing shameful acts. Disgraceful,” wrote Twitter user Yusra Razan, from Jeddah, referring to Saudi forces engaged in Yemen’s civil war.
Tens of thousands of others jumped to defend the entertainment drive and created a new hashtag, “the General Entertainment Authority makes us happy,” which also trended in Riyadh.
They shared videos of people rolling their eyes and waving their hands dismissively, and of men in beards and thobes merrily dancing to traditional drumbeats.
A Saudi university student from Jeddah, who spoke on condition he be identified only as Mohammed, dismissed the debate and said Saudi had more pressing issues to resolve.
“Personally I am disinterested in it. The country needs real and drastic reform. Activists are in jail, the economy is in danger,” he said by telephone.
“To me this [debate over culture] is not that important but I know it has many consequences. Conservatism is a big deal in Saudi Arabia, both social and religious.”
(Reporting and writing by Tom Finn in Doha; Editing by Toby Chopra)