Middle East

Three stabbed in Saudi performance after entertainment restrictions lifted

Three performers have been stabbed during a live play in Saudi Arabia's capital. Source: AAP

Police have now arrested a 33-year-old Yemeni expatriate after three performers were stabbed during a play in Riyadh.

A Yemeni man has stabbed three performers during a live play in the Saudi capital on Monday, police say, in the first such attack since the conservative kingdom began easing decades-old restrictions on entertainment.

The assailant was arrested after state television footage showed him stomping onto the stage in Riyadh's King Abdullah Park during a musical performance by what appeared to be a foreign theatre troupe.

"Security forces dealt with a ... stabbing attack against two men and a woman from a theatre group during a live performance," a police spokesperson said.

Police said the man arrested was a 33-year-old Yemeni expatriate and the knife used in the attack was seized. 

The statement added the victims were in stable condition but offered no information about their nationality or the motivation of the assailant.

The King Abdullah Park is one of the venues hosting the two-month "Riyadh Season" entertainment festival, part of a broad government push to open up the austere kingdom to tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is pushing to open up tourism in a bid to reduce the Kingdom's dependence on oil.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is pushing to open up tourism in a bid to reduce the Kingdom's dependence on oil.
Saudi Royal Palace

The country's de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced stunning reforms including allowing concerts, re-opening cinemas and lifting a ban on women driving as part of a contentious liberalisation drive.

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.

But Saudi officials warn that introducing such reforms in a society steeped in conservatism is fraught with peril.

'Collision course'

While they are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia's majority young population, the reforms risk angering arch-conservatives, including hard-line 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 criticised 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 of the Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies said.

"After this attack, we can expect a sharper crackdown on those opposed to Saudi's entertainment push." 

RnB singer Mariah Carey performed in Jeddah earlier this year after Saudi Arabia eased restrictions on entertainment.
RnB singer Mariah Carey performed in Jeddah earlier this year after Saudi Arabia eased restrictions on entertainment.
AAP

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.

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