Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Sept 24: For the first time ever, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on Saturday, allowed women into the King Fahd sports stadium in Riyadh, as it launched celebrations to mark the 87th anniversary of its founding with an unprecedented array of concerts and performances. This marked a shift from previous celebrations in the kingdom (which adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam), where women are effectively barred from sports arenas by strict rules on segregation of the saxes in public.
Families were allowed into the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, used mostly for football matches, and seated separately from single men to mark the kingdom´s 87th National Day this weekend.
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 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.
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.
Saudi flags and green billboards, often bearing the face of King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed, went up across Riyadh this week, and at night skyscrapers are flooded in green light – the national colour.
Photo: Saudi Arabia allows women into stadium for first time on national day
Companies from telecoms operators to furniture stores 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 $20 billion 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.
Saudi Arabia has some of the world´s tightest restrictions on women and is the only country where they are not allowed to drive. Under the country´s guardianship system, a male family member (normally the father, husband or brother) must grant permission for a woman´s study, travel and other activities.
But the kingdom appears to be relaxing some norms as part of its “Vision 2030” plan for economic and social reforms.
In July, rights campaigners welcomed an “overdue” reform by the education ministry to allow girls to take part in sports at state schools.