Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: “This could never have happened two years ago,” was the constant refrain at the Red Sea Film Festival, held this month in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That was certainly true. A 35-year ban on cinema was lifted only in 2018. Earlier this year, the kingdom had its first music festival. Parties at the festival involved DJs, enthusiastic dancing and respectable but unembarrassed mingling of the sexes. The festival’s slogan was “Waves of change”, a theme taken up in conversations with you ng Saudis. “We have so much catching-up to do,” is another line that brings instant consensus.
The festival was a big deal. It took over the centre of the city, with two new multiplexes in temporary buildings and a spectacular auditorium for gala screenings on the edge of the old town, 138 features and 1500 guests, including international press, flown in from around the world. This was in the face of opposition from human rights organisations and opponents of the regime, who described the festival – and the Formula One grand prix that took place in Jeddah only a day earlier – as attempts to whitewash the Kingdom’s record on human rights.
“International films are used as a cover for a sinister scenario of detentions, beheadings and murder by a regime that is desperate to break its isolation,” Madawi Al-Rasheed, a professor at London School of Economics and prominent critic of the Saudi government, told the Observer. When the festival was announced, Oscar-nominated film director Sami Khan urged his colleagues to stay away, but there were several internationally famous faces on the red carpet: Catherine Deneuve, Clive Owen, Hilary Swank and Anthony Mackie, who is currently shooting a blockbuster at the Kingdom’s new film studios.
The studios are part of Neom, a new city-state in the north of the country that is touted as a new global hub of industrial innovation in manufacturing, transport, media and health. Around 2000 people are living there now, with two million expected by 2030 in an area the size of Belgium, most of which will be maintained in its natural state.
“We will be a semi-autonomous state within the Kingdom, with our own government and laws and regulatory framework,” says Wayne Laub, an Australian who has worked for most of the major film studios and is now managing director of media, entertainment, culture and fashion industries for Neom. “Where this is resonating for potential residents and industries is that nowhere else can industries test at scale their new technologies in a real-world environment … We’ll be the first cognitive city in the world because of this ability to wire up which is something existing environments have struggled to do.”
Neom is one of the more startling initiatives, directly sponsored by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, intended to switch the Saudi economy away from oil. Neighbouring state United Arab Emirates has successfully turned Dubai into a destination for tourists and foreign residents craving sun, sand, shopping and dazzling opulence. Saudi Arabia has a blanket ban on alcohol – although rumours circulate that this rule will be modified soon, at least for visitors – and no beach culture. Even hotel swimming pools excluded women until very recently; while the rules on female dress are visibly in flux, most Saudi women are still fully veiled in public and the official advice to tourists is to cover everything below the chin.