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Saudi Arabia looks for fun to spur economy

[RIYADH] Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sought regional and international investment in its entertainment industry as part of a push to overhaul the economy for life after oil.

Turki Al Alshikh, newly appointed chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, said the kingdom will seek to land big theatrical productions like "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Lion King," as well as regional and international circuses in 2019 and 2020.

Saudi Arabia also wants to hold more competitions, exhibitions, bazaars, stand-up comedy shows and themed attractions, he said, adding investment in the sector could create tens of thousands of jobs for Saudis, "if not hundreds" of thousands.

"Our doors are open," Mr Al Alshikh said.

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The kingdom has loosened the reins on the entertainment industry since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed his de facto leadership, vowing to reform the energy-dominated economy. Authorities have lifted a 30-year ban on cinemas, while cafes are filled with music previously considered immoral in the conservative kingdom. Internationally known performers including Enrique Iglesias and Cirque du Soleil have packed arenas.

But as energy prices have recovered, the world's biggest crude exporter is finding it harder to break with its reliance on oil. Even as higher public spending is projected to drive non-oil economic growth to 2.6 per cent in 2019, it remains below levels achieved before 2014, when crude prices collapsed, according to Bloomberg Economics. The share of the government's oil income will grow to 68 per cent of total revenue this year.

At a series of concerts held alongside the Formula E race in the Riyadh suburb of Diriyah in December, most people interviewed were positive about the changes implemented by the crown prince. Female spectators drove up to the race alone and uncovered in their sports cars, after the world's last ban on women driving was scrapped.

But a simultaneous crackdown on dissent has led some inside the country and overseas to question whether the fun is just a distraction, a way of diverting criticism of a leadership that's growing more authoritarian. This political shift was thrust into the spotlight with the murder in October of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a high-profile critic of the crown prince's policies.

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