In revolutionary month, Saudi Arabia shows the world a new face

The Kingdom organized a series of high-profile events in December, reassuring the world that its liberalization policy is bearing fruit.

Over the past month, prominent international celebrities from Hilary Swank to Nadine Njeim have walked the red carpet in sparkling and sometimes plunging dresses usually reserved in Los Angeles or Paris.

F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton raced for screaming sports fans, and Justin Bieber performed his famous hits in front of a wild and sold-out crowd.

But they weren’t walking, running, or singing in LA.

Instead, they were in Jeddah, the cultural capital of the thriving kingdom of Saudi Arabia, once one of the most closed countries in the world.

From December 3-5, Jeddah hosted the country’s first Formula 1 racing event, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Hamilton and Max Verstappen both participated, as did extraordinary musicians like Bieber, ASAP Rocky and David Guetta.

Regional influencers and stars like Nathalie Fanj and Cynthia Samuel were also present.

“Growing up in the Arab world, big events like this would always be held in Beirut, Cairo or now in the United Arab Emirates,” said Nader Khoury, a 28-year-old Lebanese national living in Jeddah who attended the F1.

“So it definitely changes the region – if not the world – that these events take place here. My kids are going to grow up asking if they can go to such a concert in Riyadh, which is kind of crazy to think.

Saudi visitors to an old house in Jeddah take photos of movie stars on the red carpet during the closing ceremony of the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 13. (AP)

According to Saudi Arabia-based Arab News, hotel room rates in Jeddah have reached all-time highs since 2018 during the Grand Prix, with the average room selling for over $ 450, just under three times the price. average price. It was a welcome change for hoteliers hit hard by coronavirus-related closures that kept tourists from leaving the country for 17 months, although, according to Bloomberg, government-promoted tourist sites injected more than $ 2.3 billion. dollars in the country’s economy over the summer months, thanks mainly to domestic travel.

For reference, the country hopes to generate $ 100 billion in tourism, or 10% of Saudi GDP, by 2030.

But in truth, F1 pales in comparison to the Red Sea Film Festival, which illuminated the city with more fame, glamor and artistry than the country has ever seen.

Hosted at the World Heritage Site of Old Jeddah, the event brought together top celebrities from the region and the world for what would be a celebration of Saudi fashion, film and culture.

Many stars, like models Alessandra Ambrosio and Sara Sampaio, have honored regional designers with their sets. Lebanon’s iconic Zuhair Murad was a fan favorite, as was Lebanese designer Monot, worn by Shanina Shaik and Candice Swaepoel, among others.

Iranian filmmaker Panah Pandahi, whose debut feature “Hit the Road” won the jury prize at the festival, said the event should instead be seen as a catalyst for change in this traditionally conservative country.

“If Saudi Arabia continues to organize such festivals, it will surely feel the impact. These festivals will help their culture and traditions spread to the whole world. The whole world will know them better, ”said Pandahi TRT World.

It could also serve as an example to other nations.

“I am so happy that my film is being shown in Saudi Arabia without any censorship,” Pandahi said.

“I hope that will happen one day in my own country.”

Honayda, a Saudi brand designed by designer Honayda Serafi, also became an instant hit with crowds and social media when one of her dresses wowed Saudi filmmaker and actress Fatima al Banawi. Only launched in 2017, Serafi has found its way into 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 – although diverse in subject matter and country of origin – were also a showcase of Saudi talent, especially women, many of whom have been at the helm of the international industry for years, but were not still able to exhibit their films in their home country. , cinemas being banned until 2017.

“When I was a kid watching a movie for me was a dream, and making the first Saudi film was a dream, and being honored in the first film festival in Saudi Arabia was also a dream,” Haifaa al Mansour told the festival audience. .

Al Mansour was long regarded as Saudi Arabia’s premier female director when her first film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012. At the time, it was still not licensed to screen in Saudi Arabia.

Nine years later however, she was honored for the film, which had a special screening at the Red Sea Film Festival.

Canadian pop star Justin Bieber performs at a concert to mark the end of Formula 1 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in early December.

Canadian pop star Justin Bieber performs at a concert to mark the end of Formula 1 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in early December. (PA)

Saudi Arabia invests in the arts

Rahaf Jambi, a Saudi influencer with more than 71,000 Instagram followers, says the international events taking place in the country are “a mark in history”, especially for young artists.

“We are seeing a lot of changes in the region, and these changes are helping to uncover young talent like artists, fashion designers, actors and cinematographers,” she says.

Jambi credits the Saudi Fashion Commission with leading the change.

Established in February 2020, the Commission seeks to ‘evolve the Kingdom’s fashion industry through culture, amplifying Saudi heritage and identity, while meeting global needs and impacting the economy national ”, by exhibiting, incubating and mentoring young Saudi talent.

“The Fashion Commission is here to guide Saudi designers and to represent and present our traditional clothes to the world. I really think it’s an amazing idea because we need it. We need something like this that can preserve [our traditional clothes], says Jambi.

The Fashion Commission ‘s sister is the Saudi Film Commission. Also launched in 2020, it aims to make the country a premier destination for film production, with a target turnover of $ 500 million.

On Tuesday, a day before the festival closes, the Commission announced a 40% cash rebate for the production of selected films shot in the country, which it hopes will inspire local and international filmmakers to produce in Arabia. Arabia.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain looks at the trophy ahead of the start of the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah in early December.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain looks at the trophy ahead of the start of the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah in early December. (PA)

Commenting on the announcement, Commission CEO Abdullah Al Eyaf said: “Our ambition is high, we want Saudi Arabia to become a global hub for cinema, creative production and talent in the world. ‘industry.

“The benefits of developing a world-class film industry go beyond the sector and will strengthen the Saudi cultural ecosystem as a whole, spurring economic growth and creative jobs across the country. “

The two commissions are working in accordance 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 redesigns and innovations that hope to attract tourists and Investors.

Vision 2030 is the brainchild of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, who is widely regarded as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s liberalization.

Of course, neither he nor the events in Saudi Arabia this month are without criticism, with advocates calling on participating celebrities to step down in protest at Saudi Arabia’s less than stellar human rights record.

A handful of directors withdrew from 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 whitewash their reputation.” But events have otherwise unfolded without considering human rights grievances, which the Saudi government has always vehemently denied.

Source: TRT World

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