Saudi Arabia is pulling out all the stops to become a global entertainment hub

The country has come out with a slew of initiatives to become a global entertainment hub—right from wooing local and international filmmakers and encouraging musical talent to setting up theme parks and entertainment centres.

Saudi Arabia is pulling out all the stops to become a global entertainment hub

Thursday April 06, 2023,

5 min Read

Key Takeaways

  • The Saudi government is keen to fund homegrown productions and encourage local talent in films and music. 
  • The country is launching soft money schemes to build a local film and TV industry from scratch. 
  • Saudi Arabia is opening up for film shoots. 
  • Public Investment Fund-owned Saudi Entertainment Ventures is looking to create a unique entertainment destination in the Tabuk region. 

In November last year, Saudi Arabia—once known for its strict regime and censorship on entertainment and movies—hosted one of the largest international film festivals—Red Sea Film Festival. 

Until 2017, there was no form of entertainment in the country. So, it came as a pleasant surprise for the world at large, as top movie stars and entertainers from around the globe—such as Gal Gadot, Priyanka Chopra, Michelle Yeoh, and Leonardo di Caprio—adorned the red carpet at the Red Sea Film Festival. 

The film festival not only welcomed global cinema but also announced to the world that it would encourage local filmmakers and entertainment talent. So, apart from encouraging entrepreneurship, Saudi Arabia is also giving a significant push to culture and entertainment.

Just like it opened its doors for tourism after decades, the country is now opening up for film shoots. Several productions have already been shot in Saudi Arabia. These include Kandahar, Gerard Butler’s action thriller, filmed at AlUla, a UNESCO heritage site. Another film, Desert Warrior, has been shot in NEOM, a futuristic city that is being built in the Tabuk province of Northwestern Saudi Arabia. 

Boosting the local entertainment industry

In recent times, there has been an explosion of creativity and culture, as the region wants to be seen and heard globally. 

A report by Variety states that Saudi Arabia is launching several soft money schemes worth over $234 million for both local and international companies in the next three years to build a film and TV industry from scratch. The report says Saudi’s soft money is split between $154 million for loans and $80 million for investments.

Saudi Arabia has today become the Middle East’s top grossing territory in terms of theatrical box office returns. The Saudi Cultural Development Fund unveiled a Film Sector Financing Program during an event dedicated to the film industry in Riyadh. 

At Cannes last year, Saudi unveiled a tax rebate for production, which provides up to 40% of spend in cashback. This is for film productions that recruit Saudi crew and talent, above and below the line, and feature the region's culture and landscapes. 

As the local entertainment industry is almost non-existent, the Saudi government has been keen to set up one—by funding homegrown productions, helping homegrown talent, sponsoring local filmmakers to study abroad, and establishing schools, studios and sound stages. 

The General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia had approved licences to over 1,300 entertainment shows until the end of last year. The authority also provided over 630 permits for artistic and entertainment talent management. 

The government has issued over 360 management and crowd organisation certificates, over 700 licences to operate entertainment facilities, and 120 certificates for ticket sales of entertainment activities. 

Big players in film exhibition have already entered Saudi Arabia. The aim is to have 2,500 screens opened in the country over the next five years across 350 theatres and create more than 30,000 jobs by 2030. 

The music scene in the region is also throbbing with life and energy. 

“I think Saudi Arabia is doing well with the MDLBEAST (a music festival) concept; especially this year, it seemed to be more of an eclectic mix of music,” says Adam Cotier, a DJ and producer. 

“When I was there last year, it was more focused on electronic music. This year, you saw more local talent, more platform for local talent, more variety of localised music, and different cultural aspects within music—Arabic music and other such genres.” 

The current size of the Saudi media sector is SAR 17.4 billion, according to a Kearney report. The Saudi region leads the Middle East and North Africa media market with about 30% market share. 

Becoming a global hub 

Saudi Arabia is gradually becoming a global entertainment hub, following in the footsteps of Dubai. 

“Dubai is definitely a melting pot. And it looks as though Saudi is looking to sort of follow suit in that regard,” says Stephon LaMar, a self-employed musician. 

“And obviously, arts and entertainment are a huge part of that,” he points out. 

Public Investment Fund (PIF), like always, is at the epicentre of this transformation. For instance, PIF-owned Saudi Entertainment Ventures looks to create a unique destination in the Tabuk region. It is working on launching an entertainment destination in the kingdom, at a value of SAR 1 billion. 

“The idea is to rival Walt Disney and spend billions to create an entertainment industry. It aims to create 24 theme parks and over 421 entertainment centres. Ambitious, considering the region has nothing in terms of an entertainment business,” says an animation filmmaker, on the condition of anonymity. 

“A city cannot really, truly progress, in my opinion, if it doesn't allow the growth and expansion of arts and entertainment. So, I see Saudi, much like it is in so many other industries, doing its best to be as forward thinking (in arts and entertainment) as possible,” sums up LaMar. 

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Edited by Swetha Kannan