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“A momentous occasion”: Saudi Arabia’s first female headline show

Marking the latest chapter in the kingdom's increasingly liberal attitudes towards music, Egyptian singer Nihad Fathy has became the first to perform for a mixed audience

By Jon Chapple on 30 Apr 2018

National Arab Music Ensemble, Egyptian Opera House, Riyadh

Nihad Fathy performed with Egypt's Arab Music Ensemble

image © GCA Saudi Arabia

History was made in Saudi Arabia last Wednesday when a woman singer performed before a mixed (as opposed to all-female) audience for the first time.

Egyptian singer Nihad Fathy, backed by Egypt’s National Arab Music Ensemble (AME), played to a 2,500-strong crowd at the King Fahad Cultural Center in Riyadh on 25 April.

The show marked the latest chapter in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which, among other aims, hopes to develop a domestic live entertainment industry in the conservative Islamic kingdom. Last September, the General Authority for Entertainment – the body tasked with driving growth in the entertainment sector – announced a US$2.7 billion fund with which it hopes to attract international partners, and said in February Saudi Arabia will host 5,000 shows in 2018, including “some of the biggest names in global music”.

Live music contributes a greater share of music industry revenues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) than elsewhere in the world – 90%, compared to around 65% worldwide – and foreign investment is pouring into the Saudi Arabia’s MENA neighbours Israel, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

“It is a momentous occasion for Saudis”

Commenting on the AME show, Saudi culture minister Awwad Alawwad – who initiated the event with his Egyptian counterpart – says: “It is a momentous occasion for Saudis. This event is a realisation of one of the main concepts of Vision 2030 […], which is social and cultural reform through inclusion and participation. This is a transformative moment in the evolution of Saudi Arabia into a more vibrant economy and society.

“Egypt’s rich and historic culture has a special resonance in Saudi Arabia, and the thousands of Saudis in attendance during these performances proved this.”

In March 2017, Saudi capital Riyadh hosted its first concert since 1988 – music is generally considered sinful (haram) by the Sunni kingdom’s religious authorities – marking the beginning of a major social shift in country.


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