Curtains in Riyadh
DATE : November 14, 1996
AUTHOR : John Lancaster
COPYRIGHT : The Washington Post
In the 1980s, flush with oil wealth and eager to
show it, the Saudi royal family erected a magnificent new public
building to celebrate the arrival of the ultra-modern Saudi capital
on the world stage. Fittingly, it was a concert hall.
By all accounts, the King Fahd Cultural Center is one of world's most
technologically sophisticated performance halls, with laser lighting, seating
for more than 3,000 people and a hydraulically operated stage. A peek through
the locked glass entrance reveals plush salon chairs and a vast expanse
of heavily marbled foyer.
But don't go running for tickets.
Because of objections from conservative Islamic clerics -- who fear
an onslaught of mixed-sex audiences and operas starring unveiled foreign
divas -- the curtain has yet to go up on a single performance since the
massive hall was completed in 1989, according to Western diplomats, a European
employee and others familiar with its history.
"The reason they never opened it to the general public is they
are embarrassed by the whole thing," said a foreign diplomat who was
granted a rare tour of the facility, built for an estimated $140 million
and still maintained in pristine, air-conditioned splendor by a full-time
staff of 180. "They don't want to show they spent so much money on
The story of the mothballed performance hall opens a window onto one
of the most striking and important aspects of life in Saudi Arabia:
the tension between modernization -- which has yielded a familiar First
World landscape of silken highways and air-conditioned shopping malls --
and religious conservatism in a society that is, at least to Western eyes,
one of the most alien and austere on Earth.
Nowhere is that tension more evident than in Riyadh, one of the world's
fastest-growing cities. American restaurant franchises -- Burger King,
Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken -- coexist with shrouded women, religious
police and occasional public beheadings. Saudi professionals hone
their physiques in sleek new health clubs equipped with Stairmasters and
Westerners often assume that the conservatism of Saudi life reflects
government policy -- that Saudi women, for example, would willingly
shed their veils if they could do so without fear of condemnation. In fact,
the opposite may be true.
While some Saudis would welcome a more relaxed society -- such
as one in which women were allowed to drive -- interviews with ordinary
Saudis, government officials and foreign residents over the course
of 12 days suggest that it is Saudis themselves who insist on strict
Islamic standards of public decorum, even if that means doing without a
"The conservatism you see in the street is not governmentally ordained,"
said Aziz Fahd, a Yale-educated Saudi lawyer who was brought up
in Riyadh. "It is the other way around."
Because the legitimacy of the Saud family flows from its status as the
guardian of the holy shrines at Mecca and Medina, the government must be
careful not to offend the Saudi religious establishment, known collectively
as the ulema. The ulema's insistence on strict segregation of the sexes
is reflected in the public life of the capital, where even the municipal
zoo sets aside separate visiting days for families and single men.
But the government takes a more relaxed attitude toward private behavior,
tolerating, for example, the widespread use of television satellite dishes
even though they are supposed to be illegal. Prince Bandar bin Sultan,
the Saudi ambassador to Washington, likes to compare the relationship
between the royal family and its subjects to that of two men holding a
fine thread: When one pulls, the other yields, and vice versa.
Maintaining that balance is not always easy. Islamic militants have
made an issue out of the royal family's pro-Western leanings, winning points
with middle-class Saudis feeling the pinch of lower oil revenues.
The surge of Islamic militancy in Saudi Arabia -- blamed for two
bombings of American military sites in the last 12 months -- has raised
fears in Western capitals of a threat to the stability of the world's largest
"This is the twist in this country," said a wealthy Saudi
businessman who is close to the royal family. "The government is pushing
toward modernization, and the culture is going backward."
Perhaps because of that, the concert hall -- known to Westerners here
as "the opera house" -- is something of an embarrassment to Saudi
authorities. Officials at the Information Ministry initially professed
ignorance of its existence. "Frankly, I've never heard about this,"
one senior official said. "I mean, for what? Belly dancing?"
A reporter subsequently located the building, a striking edifice of
white marble that occupies a barren patch of desert near a busy highway
on the outskirts of Riyadh. The building was identified only by a small
roadside bearing the initials K.F.C.C. -- for King Fahd Cultural Center.
From all appearances, the hall is ready for opening night. Asian workers
tended immaculate flower beds. Sprinklers hissed. In back, near a dozing
Saudi security guard, a service entrance opened into the bowels
of the facility, where more workers scurried between administrative offices
and rooms filled with brand-new machinery.
But in one of the offices, a European employee shook his head when asked
if the concert hall had ever been used. "It is forbidden," he
said before escorting a visitor to the door. "I don't think it will
ever be open."
The employee directed further inquiries to the General Presidency for
Youth Welfare, a government agency that is responsible for the facility.
But an official at that organization politely turned down a request for
a tour. The building is undergoing "modifications," he said,
and no opening date has been set.
As pieced together from Western diplomats and a Saudi businessman
familiar with the project, the story of the performance hall begins with
King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, who ruled from 1964 until his assassination
by a deranged nephew in 1975. Eager to build a modern capital, Faisal envisioned
the hall as the centerpiece of a large complex of cultural and sports facilities,
according to a person who has seen drawings of the proposed development.
But the so-called sports city never came to fruition: Only a swimming-pool
complex and the concert hall have been completed.
From the standpoint of its designers, the timing of the project could
hardly have been worse. The hall was finished under King Fahd only a year
or so before hundreds of thousands of American troops flooded the kingdom
to repel Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, according to several sources.
The presence of the foreign troops on Muslim holy soil -- not to mention
the spectacle of female American soldiers in T-shirts driving trucks and
carrying guns -- sparked a conservative backlash in the kingdom. Among
other things, it strengthened the hand of the religious police, or mutaween,
who roam the streets in search of immodestly dressed women and merchants
who fail to shutter their stores during five daily prayer periods.
After local religious leaders "went berserk" over the concert
hall, the government decided to wait for a more favorable climate in which
to open it, said the businessman close to the royal family. Meanwhile,
the government is spending large sums to maintain the facility, in which
the air conditioning runs constantly to prevent damage to precious interior
In the absence of movie theaters and other public forms of entertainment,
Saudis tend to spend their leisure time in the privacy of their
own homes. On weekends, especially during spring and fall, middle-class
Saudis in Riyadh head for the desert, where many have erected semi-permanent
At least for a Westernized elite, such limited choices can be frustrating.
"People are very hungry for entertainment, for having a good time,
and there's a lot of money for it, but the problem is the social restrictions,"
said a Saudi who went to college in the United States and is thinking
about moving back there with his family. "It seems like most of the
activity is watching satellite television. That's sort of our escape."
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