Saudi Arabia is celebrating the 87th anniversary of its founding this weekend with an unprecedented array of concerts and performances, including allowing women into King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh for a Saturday evening operetta – a first in the conservative Islamic kingdom.
The festivities are part of a government bid to boost national pride and improve the quality of life for Saudis.
Also on offer is a concert in the Red Sea city of Jeddah featuring 11 Arab musicians, plus fireworks, air acrobatics and traditional folk dance shows.
The events are the latest entertainment sponsored by the government as part of the Vision 2030 reform program launched two years ago to diversify the economy away from oil, create whole new sectors to employ young citizens and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.
However in a country that adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which bans gender mixing, concerts and cinemas, the plan’s seemingly anodyne goals to empower women, promote sports and invest in entertainment have been criticized.
Saudi rulers are also starting to reform areas once the exclusive domain of the clergy, such as education and the law, and have promoted elements of national identity that have no religious component, or pre-date Islam.
They have increased National Day celebrations that were previously attacked by clerics as undermining religious feeling, and are promoting heritage sites, like Nabatean rock temples, once seen as embarrassing in the land of Islam.
Saudi flags and green billboards, often bearing the face of King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed, have gone up across Riyadh this week, and at night skyscrapers are flooded in green light – the national color.
Companies from telecoms operators to furniture stores have launched patriotic-themed marketing campaigns offering discounts for the holiday weekend.
The General Entertainment Authority, the government agency organizing the National Day festivities, expects some 1.5 million Saudis to attend events in 17 cities over four days.
Vision 2030 reforms are intended to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas by Saudis, who are accustomed to traveling abroad to see shows and visit amusement parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or further afield.
This weekend’s events, though, are free to the public.