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Three actors stabbed on stage in Riyadh

RIYADH: A Yemeni man stabbed three actors at a performance in the Saudi capital, police said yesterday, in the first such attack since the ultraconservative kingdom began easing decades-old restrictions on entertainment. The knife-wielding assailant was arrested after state television footage showed him storming a musical performance in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Park by what appeared to be a foreign theatre troupe.

Police said the victims were in stable condition after the attack late Monday, which comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues sweeping reforms that mark the biggest cultural shakeup in the kingdom’s modern history. “Security forces dealt with a… stabbing attack against two men and a woman from a theatre group during a live performance,” a police spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency. Police identified the assailant as a 33-year-old Yemeni expatriate but did not give details of his motive or the nationality of his victims.

The King Abdullah Park is one of the venues hosting the two-month “Riyadh Season”, an arts and entertainment festival that is part of a broad government push to open up the kingdom to tourists and diversify its economy away from oil. Prince Mohammed has introduced mixed-gender concerts, re-opened cinemas and lifted a decades-old ban on women drivers as part of a drive to modernize the Muslim kingdom.
In scenes that were unimaginable just two years ago, Saudi Arabia has staged glitzy performances by a host of international artists, from South Korean boy band BTS to pop icon Janet Jackson and rapper 50 Cent. Last month, the kingdom hosted its first ever women’s wrestling match as it attempts to shrug off its ultraconservative image. The knife attack has left many Saudis shocked, with some on social media denouncing it as an act of “terrorism”. “Every instigator against entertainment is a partner in this extremist act,” one Twitter user said.

Saudi officials warn that introducing such wide-ranging reforms in a society steeped in conservatism is fraught with peril. While they are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia’s mainly young population, the reforms risk angering archconservatives, including hardline clerics and the religious police whose powers have been clipped in recent years. “The risk of this sort of attack against the recent introduction of public entertainment, which many clerics have been inciting against, is a key reason (the government) has pursued a zero tolerance policy towards their public attacks against change and reform,” Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi said on Twitter.

Earlier this year, human rights campaigners reported the arrest of religious scholar Omar Al-Muqbil after he criticized the Saudi General Entertainment Authority for hosting such concerts, saying they were “erasing Saudi society’s original identity”. “Liberals and conservatives in the kingdom are on a collision course and that probably worries Saudi leaders the most,” Quentin de Pimodan, a Saudi expert at the Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies, told AFP. “After this attack we can expect a sharper crackdown on those opposed to Saudi’s entertainment push.”

Saudi Arabia has already drawn international censure for its sweeping crackdown on critics, including clerics, intellectuals and women activists. The kingdom has faced international scrutiny over its human rights record since last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

Developing the tourism and leisure sector is one of the foundations of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to prepare the Arab world’s largest economy for the post-oil era. The General Entertainment Authority has said it plans to pump $64 billion into the sector in the coming decade. Some Saudis, however, view the push for entertainment as an attempt to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and high youth unemployment in the petro-state. – AFP

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