“There is a misconception that Saudis don’t have a funny bone,” says Yaser Bakr, founder of Saudi Arabia’s first comedy club.
But hundreds of thousands of views of Saudi comedy videos on YouTube tell a different story. Indeed, the country is taking steps to elevate the Kingdom’s new platform for art and expression: namely, stand-up comedy.
The official General Entertainment Authority recently organized a festival at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh. The show was a talent-hunt of sorts for Saudi Arabia’s own version of the U.S. TV-show “Seinfeld,” and featured young and up-and-coming performers, including 26-year-old Battar Al Battar, and Rakain Al Zafer. With 70 percent of the Saudi population under 30, the Kingdom is home to a ripe audience eager to explore issues pertinent to a young, modern generation.
Even more, festival director Jubran Al Jubran wants to show that comedy can be clean and funny. “Saudi Arabia needs to cultivate this art. Comedy has a purifying effect, it cleanses the soul. It’s a relief to laugh about our own problems.”
Laughter Could be the Country’s Best Medicine, Yet
The festival highlights the broader development push by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to expand social opportunities all while diversifying the economy away from oil. One way to achieve this lies in the Kingdom’s entertainment realm. Indeed, this year’s performing comedians were all men, but festival organizers have indicated that women will participate next year.
The General Entertainment Authority is boosting entertainment options like never before, from a Comic-Con festival to Monster Jam’s Saudi debut. The overwhelmingly positive reactions by packed mixed-gender audiences in Riyadh and other cities are evidence that Saudi Arabia’s population is prime for this shift.
Beyond economic incentive, the changes echo Prince Mohammad’s recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to an open, moderate Islam. Jubran is confident stand-up comedy can both help change the austere reputation of the country, and usher in a return to public divertissement.
“We aim to destroy extremism through comedy, by making people laugh.”