Saudi Arabia has allowed women into the national stadium for the first time as it launched celebrations to mark the 87th anniversary of its founding with an unprecedented array of concerts and performances, the Guardian reports.
The festivities are part of a government bid to boost national pride and improve the quality of life for Saudis timed to coincide with Saturday’s national day.
As well as allowing women to attend an operetta at the stadium in Riyadh on Saturday night, another concert in the Red Sea city of Jeddah featured 11 Arab musicians, plus fireworks, air acrobatics and traditional folk dance shows.
The events are part of the government’s Vision 2030 reform programme launched two years ago to diversify the economy away from oil, create new sectors to employ young citizens and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.
However in a country that adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which bans gender mixing, concerts and cinemas, the plan’s seemingly anodyne goals to empower women, promote sports and invest in entertainment have been criticised.
Saudi rulers are also starting to reform areas once the exclusive domain of the clergy, such as education and the law, and have promoted elements of national identity that have no religious component, or pre-date Islam.
They have stepped up national day celebrations that were previously attacked by clerics as undermining religious feeling, and are promoting heritage sites, such as Nabatean rock temples, once seen as embarrassing in the land of Islam.
Saudi flags and green billboards, often bearing the face of King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed, have gone up across Riyadh this week, and at night skyscrapers are flooded in green light - the national colour.
Companies from telecoms operators to furniture stores have launched patriotic-themed marketing campaigns offering discounts for the holiday weekend.
The government agency organising the national day festivities, expects some 1.5 million Saudis to attend events in 17 cities over four days.
Vision 2030 reforms are intended to capture up to a quarter of the $20bn currently spent overseas by Saudis, who are accustomed to travelling abroad to see shows and visit amusement parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or further afield.
This weekend’s events, though, are free to the public.