Too tight to fly: Saudi entertainment chief sacked after circus show triggers hardliner backlash

Too tight to fly: Saudi entertainment chief sacked after circus show triggers hardliner backlash
A performance in Riyadh by a supposedly Russian circus, which featured female artists showcasing their skills in tight-fitting leotards, may have cost the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Agency his job.

Ahmad al-Khatib, who was spearheading Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's cultural reforms in the ultra-conservative kingdom, was fired on Monday, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. While the agency did not provide any clue as to what prompted his abrupt removal, the semi-official Sabq news outlet reported that al-Khatib fell victim to the wave of outrage sparked by a recent circus performance in the capital that featured skimpy-clad female artists.

Footage of the show, featuring one female performer in a pink leotard and the other, a trapeze artist sporting a similar white outfit, has been making the rounds on YouTube in Saudi Arabia. A YouTube video with several young Saudi men bashing the performance in Arabic has gone viral, drawing hundreds of comments. Sabq reported that the performance infuriated the Saudi conservatives, who said the women were wearing “indecent clothes” for the show.

Although Saudi Arabia has gradually been relaxing its severe restrictions on women, including ending the driving ban, greenlighting mix-gender concerts and allowing women into football stadiums for the first time, women living in the kingdom are still subjected to significant restrictions.

For instance, they have to adhere to a strict dress code, wearing a loose-fitting and ankle-length robe called abaya in public, regardless of the circumstances. Back in April, the kingdom’s General Sports Authority shut down an all-female fitness center in Riyadh after a promotional video showed a woman in figure-hugging gym clothes, with her head, arms and chest not covered.

The crown prince’s cautious relaxation of the rules for public life is believed to be not only aimed at improving the image of the country abroad but also at encouraging locals to spend more money at home, rather than in neighboring countries that have way more to offer in terms of entertainment. Earlier this year, the General Entertainment Agency announced it would double the number of festivals and concerts this year and invest some $64 billion into the industry over the next decade.

The reforms have been not without setbacks, with critics arguing that the crown prince’s change of policies is just a façade that does not extend to any significant improvement with regards to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

In May, at least seven Saudi feminists were arrested for undermining the country’s national and religious foundations in what rights groups denounced as a continuing crackdown on women’s rights.

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