By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
I was sitting on a lush green golf course with many of the world’s top golfers — most notably longtime Tiger Woods rival Ernie Els — just feet away.
A short distance further, workers were setting up a temporary venue for Mariah Carey to take the stage hours later. Her performance would be followed by Tiësto, the Dutch DJ, and Jamaican rapper Sean Paul.
This, I thought to myself, wasn’t how I imaged Saudi Arabia.
I grew up in the post 9/11 era, after all. The era in which the ultra-conservative kingdom was widely seen as a convenient business partner but a lax team player in George W. Bush’s War on Terror.
My recent reporting trip to Saudi Arabia came at a time when the kingdom was facing both transformation and international controversy.
This wasn’t how I’d imagined Saudi Arabia.
On the one hand, the Saudi government — led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — has overseen drastic and sudden changes to Saudi Arabia’s economy and society. These changes range from allowing women to drive and cinemas to-reopen, to opening the country to non-religious tourism for the first time in its history.
On the other hand, the government has come under intense criticism for its conduct in the war in neighbouring Yemen and the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Those criticisms felt a world away, however, as I watched the Saudi International golf tournament in Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City.
Mariah Carey, Tiësto and Sean Paul were all performing.
Golf may seem like an odd source of fun in Saudi Arabia. There are exactly six golf courses in the kingdom of 33 million people.
By comparison, nearby Dubai — with its population of two million — has more than 10. Amid all the competitors at the tournament, there was exactly one Saudi playing. Of the dozens of Saudis I met on my trip, not a single one said they’d ever played golf.
For the Saudi government, though, golf is important because it’s more than a sport. It’s a way to tee up investors.
“Golf means business,” a high-level Saudi official from the kingdom’s investment authority told me, parroting the billboards put up all over the tournament.
“Fortune 500 CEOs play golf. They make deals on the golf course. This is a way for them to come see Saudi Arabia in a different way, rather than us meet them on road shows. Saudi Arabia is open for business.”
Golf is a way to tee up investors.
The Saudi International and the concerts on its sidelines were just one of a string of sporting and entertainment events that have come to the kingdom.
In the last few months alone, Saudi Arabia has seen a Formula-E Grand Prix — which included concerts by Enrique Iglesias, David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas — as well as an Italian Supercup soccer game featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and WWE wrestling.
In fact, the kingdom is spending billions on the entertainment and leisure sectors, starting with a whopping $64-billion pledge made by the country’s general entertainment authority about a year ago.
More recently, in January, the government announced another sweeping set of changes that will eventually see musicians and stand-up comedians performing in restaurants, e-gaming competitions and magic shows. There is even a plan for a Madame Tussauds wax museum. All this was unthinkable until recently.
What does Saudi Arabia get out of this?
Roman emperors staged gladiator fights.
Some of the Saudi government’s many detractors have said they consider the events a distraction designed to keep the world — and Saudi people — from scrutinizing the country’s poor human rights record.
“The Roman emperors staged gladiator fights at the Coliseum to keep people busy and not complaining,” a European visitor whispered to me in the corner of a hospitality tent at the golf course. “That’s what this is, maybe.”
For the Saudi government, though, the entertainment and cultural sector is seen as a a welcome economic boost at a time when the country is in the midst of its “Vision 2030” transformation, which is meant to wean the economy from its oil dependency.
Some consider the events a distraction.
Throughout my time in Saudi Arabia, officials from a number of different government entities extolled the economic benefits of boosting the entertainment sector.
“People used to spend their money on holidays abroad to do things and would go to Dubai, Bahrain or even Europe to see concerts,” a Saudi businessman told me over dinner. “That’s silly. That money could be spent here.”
Other benefits cited by officials include job creation. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), for example, has said that the entertainment projects under its purview will eventually provide 22,000 direct jobs and contribute $2.13 billion to the Saudi economy by the year 2030.
Are young Saudis bothered?
All these moves, of course, create ample business opportunities, both for government bodies like the PIF and for domestic and international companies.
In an interview for Arabian Business magazine, an official from the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority revealed to me that approximately 500 entertainment-related companies established themselves over the last year.
Are young Saudis bothered that these entertainment options are springing up all of a sudden? Not from what I heard during my visit.
“Look man, this is great for us,” an American-educated Saudi in his 20s told me.
“Before we were wondering why we couldn’t do a lot of things. Now we can say, ‘I saw Cristiano Ronaldo play and soon I’m going to see Mariah Carey.’ This is really cool.”
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is the chief reporter for a business magazine in Dubai. Previously he worked for the Khaleej Times, a UAE newspaper; as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington; as a Reuters text reporter in New York, and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.