Something happened at the recent Comic Con in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that went largely unnoticed outside the Kingdom, but was met with deep satisfaction among the convention’s participants. Men and women mixed and rocked to music blaring from huge speakers on stage in a darkened hall. And not a single member of the religious police was in sight.
Ask the attendees about this monumental break from custom and tradition, not to mention the law, and the response would be a shrug of the shoulders. After all, most of the 20,000 fans attending Comic Con over three days were under the age of 25, reflecting 60 percent of the Saudi population. They came of age in a post-9/11 world where social media govern their leisure time and having an online boyfriend or girlfriend is somewhat of a right of passage.
This is the emerging Saudi Arabia. Smart, sophisticated youth that have unshackled themselves from many of the restrictions of the previous generation, but still respectful of Saudi customs and their religion. In front of the stage at Comic Con, guys and women swayed to the music. Even a year ago a high opaque partition would have separated them. At this event there was 3-foot-tall partition, but it was hardly worth the effort since the rest of the event was mixed. Clearly, there was an unspoken agreement between men and women that decorum must still be preserved.
Saudi youth are open, more tolerant and are paying closer attention to their own needs and ambitions. They are no longer isolated within the borders of Saudi Arabia, but becoming full-fledged members of the international community. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 had some influence. His austerity program is controversial among Saudis, but he also opened the door to bring more entertainment to the country to help fill a void in young peoples’ lives who often find little to do on weekends and may relieve their boredom with reckless behavior.
Where once Saudis flocked to Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates to spend their entertainment dollars at concerts and cinemas, they are finding recreational activities at home. They are spending those much needed dollars in their own country and helping contribute to the economy. But more importantly, young Saudis are defying those claims by extremists that art and music will corrupt them, proving that Saudi society is more adult than the fanatics give them credit for. Saudis are discovering that public entertainment may be the tonic to help instill pride in a country that recognizes that healthy outlets are required to live a full life. Young people have proven that there is no need to teach them morality or enforce morality on them.
The irony is the government wanted this for years, but the religious establishment and society in general were reluctant to let go. The public is finally catching up to the government’s vision of a more inclusive society while religious authorities have generally been bystanders in this dramatic shift.
Today, more public concerts are being held and more Western comics are performing before mixed audiences. The General Authority for Entertainment is studying the logistics of opening cinemas. For the first time in nearly 40 years Valentine’s Day this month was celebrated by couples in the open without the threat of the religious police interfering. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice raided no florist shops and couples exchanging gifts were not harassed in restaurants. Shops in malls decorated their window displays with obvious Valentine’s Day motifs.
Young Saudis have come to understand that religious dogma can be counterproductive in modern society if abused. Consider the well-worn trope that music is forbidden in Islam. To the contrary, moderate religious scholars say that music is a gray area in Islam and there is no solid evidence that music is forbidden. Rather, as long as music doesn’t take away the essence of an individual’s religion or contradicts the person’s religion, there is nothing forbidden about it. Music lifts the spirits and can unite people of different backgrounds.
In just a few months the emergence of public concerts, comedy shows, stage plays, pro wrestling matches and conventions like Comic Con have provided a clear indication that the world will remain spinning and the sky will not fall.
By Saudi standards these are dramatic changes in how people conduct themselves. Yet the departure from some traditions and customs was not the result of shaming by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or browbeating from foreign diplomats. These changes are organic in which young people determined that not all traditions apply to them in the modern world.
Still, it would be naive to believe that young people, particularly Saudi women, have broken free of the influence religious extremists have on their lives. There still remains the issue of freedom of travel and finding fair and equitable pay in the workplace. Although unspoken, there is the very real issue of Saudi women leaving the country to start their own businesses to avoid discrimination or enter into a profession that values their worth.
Parity for women in the workplace is a long way off, but if the freedom experienced at Comic Con is any indication, we can see it on the horizon.