The dawn of the Saudi entertainment revolution

What a Hollywood deal reveals about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitions in the entertainment industry.

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    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on October 24, 2017 [Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed]
    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on October 24, 2017 [Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed]

    In October of last year, Ari Emanuel, the CEO of one of Hollywood's biggest talent agencies, was one of a glittering coterie of international business people and investors drawn to the first Future Investment Initiative held in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Emanuel listened, no doubt avidly, to the keynote address given by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the sumptuous ballroom of the five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel as the prince detailed opportunities for foreign companies and investors.

    Ari, the brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel - a confidante of former President Barack Obama - was interviewed at the conference and spoke glowingly of Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 and the powerhouse role entertainment and culture would play in driving forward an economic revolution in the kingdom:

    "I think you will see live entertainment and music, food festivals, fashion, art shows, you will see that come in and the good thing is with Vision 2030 they have a long-term view of what they want it to become."

    What Emanuel wants is for his company William Morris Endeavor to be a big part of the emerging entertainment industry in the kingdom. After all, Saudi Arabia under the harsh Wahhabism interpretation of Islam has been an entertainment desert for decades. No cinemas, no theatre, no live popular music events. But now with Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, pledging to return Saudi Arabia to what he calls "moderate Islamthe nascent industry is poised to become a rich oasis. It has huge market potential as 70 percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30.

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    As Vision 2030 puts it: "We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy." 

    And Mohammed bin Salman is well aware too of the huge profits that can accrue if he positions himself at the top of a cultural and entertainment revolution. Vision 2030 claims that the entertainment sector will create 22,000 jobs. More enticingly, the aspiration is to develop tourism that would bring some 50 million visitors to the kingdom annually, in addition to the millions that already come for the Hajj, with money to spend on entertainment and holiday resorts. 

    Just how keenly ruthless he is about securing his position becomes clear when one considers the extraordinary events that occurred at the same Ritz-Carlton Hotel one week after the Future Investment Initiative conference ended. 

    On November 4, after hotel guests were told to leave, the Ritz-Carlton became a prison for over 200 leading businessmen and senior members of the ruling family in what was billed as an anti-corruption drive. The crackdown was ordered up by an anti-corruption committee, headed by Mohammed bin Salman. The committee was announced by royal decree as the round-up commenced.

    Among those detained were Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world's richest men, Saleh Abdullah Kamal and Waleed al-Ibrahim. In addition to their extensive business portfolios, the three men all had one thing in common: They head or rather headed large entertainment and media businesses. 

    For bin Talal, it is Rotana Media Services - a conglomerate of radio and television stations, magazines, interactive media and a distributor of movies and music videos. For Kamal, it is ART, Arab Radio and Television Network which has dozens of channels (including OSN) and specialises in family entertainment, including movies, music and sport. Al-Ibrahim controlled MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, a company with multiple television stations including a children's network, 24-hour news and a specialty channel for "the new Arab woman".

    The authorities claimed that those detained would be provided with "due process". What in fact took place was a shakedown. The detainees were released only if they paid huge amounts of money and had most, if not all, of their businesses confiscated. Prince Miteb, the then head of the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) and a son of the late King Abdullah, reportedly paid $1bn to be released. Al Waleed bin Talal has thus far refused to turn over his businesses and remains detained. It is believed that Kamal and al-Ibrahim have been released.

    The opacity of the Saudi system makes it impossible to define the boundary where Mohammed bin Salman's personal interests end and state interests begin. But what is abundantly clear is that as head of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), president of the all-encompassing Council for Economic Development Affairs, defence minister, crown prince, first deputy prime minister and chair of the anti-corruption committee, all significant economic matters pass through his hands.

    In September 2017 the PIF set aside $2.7bn to invest in the entertainment sector. Now comes word that Emanuel's company is close to sealing a deal with the PIF that would see the fund inject $500 million in return for a stake in the company. Emanuel intends to use the windfall to further diversify a company that has already bought sports vehicles such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, otherwise known as cage fighting and IMG, the huge sports, fashion and live events producer.

    And he sees Saudi Arabia as rich unexplored territory: "People (here) love to go out with other people," he told the investment conference, "they like the communal aspect so movies and concerts are big players, sports is a big player." Endeavor has all of those bases covered. The linkage with PIF, the fund that Mohammed bin Salman controls, must look like a marriage made in paradise.

    But perhaps before the deal is done, Emanuel might want to ponder what happened at the Ritz-Carlton late last year. No doubt the detainees were engaged in corrupt practices, but that is the story of the Saudi merchant class and of the ruling family.

    As a source recently said to me with a wry smile, "Everyone in the kingdom knows the arrests were selective." Whatever else happened, the detainees' human rights, their rights to a fair and transparent hearing, were trampled on. Their businesses were seized. Their personal assets frozen. They are unable to leave the kingdom.

    Emanuel is reputed to be a thoroughly ruthless businessman. But he may well have met his match and more in Mohammed bin Salman.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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