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Now is the winter of our disco tent

Back in the winter of 2019-20 Riyadh experimented with a series of state sponsored entertainment venues which were collectively known as the “Riyadh Season”. It was supposed to be the first of a series of events rolled out across different cities in the Kingdom, but Covid put paid to that ambition, and everything was shelved until the worst of the pandemic was supposedly over. If you have been slogging your way through my blogs for a long time, you may recall one entitled "‘Tis the Season" in November 2019 which described the first winter of Riyadh Season.

After the shutdown last year, this winter things are back, and are so much bigger and busier. Riyadh Boulevard is back, and comprises of a couple of stages and many smaller entertainment and eating opportunities. Also here is an ice stage where Cirque du Soleil are performing a show about the life of the footballer Lionel Messi. Other activities include a Dinosaur World, a Chocolate Factory and a Crystal Maze. A friend who has been there proudly informed me that this was an excellent opportunity for Saudis to learn the western art of queuing, with the waiting time to activity time being – in his estimate – 8:1.

The Winter Wonderland has also returned, and again is much expanded from last time. The outdoor ice skating rink has been enlarged and there are more rides too, now 52 in number. I’m not sure if the penguins are there this year – for their sake I hope not. (In 2019/20 there was a tiny pool inside a chilled tent with four unhappy-looking penguins therein).

One new event was the Middle East Music Festival (MDL Beast / Soundstorm) which was a 4-day outdoor music event held at Durrat Riyadh, to the north of the city, and it was apparently THE place for the younger people to go to. Whilst the list of artistes was extensive, I hadn’t heard of most of them, so I cannot relate to the music genres, but if it is what the young folk wanted that’s fine. I spoke to a couple of people who had gone and they were quite happy about the show itself, however one who had gone on the first day was scathing about the parking, park and ride and access. He said the P&R bus transfers were grossly insufficient and related a 5-hour walk from the car park to the venue, by which time the show had finished. He was able to get a lift back to the car park, stuffed into the luggage compartment underneath a bus with many other people. No social distancing there then. Apparently this issue was rectified from day 2 onwards.

And out at Nofa, they are again offering Safari Rides through the wildlife park.

New events this year are:

·       Qariyat Zaman, a recreated traditional Arabic village in downtown Riyadh, featuring music, dancing, crafts and foods of the bygone times.

·       In Al Salam Park in the city is an event comprising “entertainment workshops, music, karting and cooking”.  Looking at the website this includes bungee trampolines and a zipwire.

·       Nabad AlRiyadh is a new zone that promises “cultural heritage and traditions”.

·       “Oasis” is located some 50km north of Riyadh Airport, not far from the King’s Forest (see blog “We are going to see the Greenery”, of February 2020). Here there is a camping experience set in a park area with sculptures and various outdoors shows. Participants can get bonfire-cooked traditional fare of sheep or chicken kabsa.

·       At Alathriyah (just north of the airport and under the approach flightpath) is what is advertised as “luxurious and exclusive fine dining experiences, heritage retail shopping and music performances”. I don’t know anyone who has been to that, but I flew over it recently at dusk and the whole place was lit up like Blackpool.

·       Riyadh Front is a new shopping area just south of the airport and there is advertised “exhibitions, events and games”. I’ve been there a couple of times, but for more prosaic reasons, it is one of Riyadh’s drive-through Covid test centres.

·       And just east of the airport in the Janadriyah showground area is the “Combat Zone”. This comprises of “live action games, paintball, battlefields, escape rooms”, and exhibitions of firearms and artillery old and new.

Something for everyone? It seems so, and most of the events are selling-out. Entry to the general sites at Riyadh Boulevard and Winter Wonderland are 55 SAR during the week (Monday to Wednesday) and 110 SAR at the weekends (Thursday to Sunday). Participation in any of the activities is extra, and car parking is also extra with general, VIP and Valet parking options available. The events open at 4.00pm every day, thus catering for the nocturnal habits of the Saudis.  

So, what does the press have to say about Riyadh Season 2021?

Firstly, our old friend Saudi Gazette has the following comments:

(Before the start of Riyadh Season): Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the Board of Directors of General Entertainment Authority (GEA), announced that the Riyadh Season's second edition will start on Oct. 20, 2021.

Al-Sheikh published a video on his official Twitter account, saying that a press conference will be held on Oct.4 to unveil all season activities and events. Hundreds of performers and floats are set to participate in a parade and carnival to launch the season on Oct. 20 officially. Last week, Riyadh Season announced that Paris Saint-Germain's (PSG) will participate in the Riyadh Season Cup in January 2022. A one-match tournament will feature PSG prestigious roster play the stars of Al-Hilal SFC and Al Nassr FC, the region's two biggest clubs, as a part of a series of unique events planned for Riyadh Season. The dazzling event, the largest of its kind in the Middle East, is expected to draw as many as 20 million visitors. It coincides with the larger-scale tourism and entertainment events all over the Kingdom in the name of the Saudi Seasons. The second edition of the Riyadh Season will see more diverse and larger-scale events and programs with a total of 7,500 events and activities. The Riyadh Season will be held on a total area spreading over 5,400,000 square meters, in 14 zones, alongside 100 interactive experiences, 10 global exhibitions, 200 restaurants and 70 cafés.

(And more recently): "The number of people who visited the ongoing Riyadh Season crossed 8 million within a period of two months. The festival that began on Oct. 20 also created more than 122,000 jobs. The visitors included 600,000 visitors from different countries of the world. The Riyadh Season 2 recorded unprecedented number of visitors, who included citizens, residents and tourists from within the Kingdom and outside. The festival has been instrumental in creating 37,000 direct jobs, and 85,000 indirect jobs. Details about the record number of figures were released by the General Entertainment Authority Chief Turki Al-Sheikh in statements on his Twitter account."

However, there was a warning from an online reportage,

"Action will be taken against those who took video of women during the Riyadh season event in Saudi Arabia and spread it through social media. Those who misbehaved with women during the event will be taken into custody after checking the videos. Copying other people’s images with a mobile phone is punishable by up to a year in prison. A record crowd arrived at the Riyadh Season Festival last day. Meanwhile, some people filmed the young women who came to the event. There were isolated incursions against them. In addition to this, the enjoyment of women by the program was spread through social media with misinterpretation. It has been uploaded by many, including video platforms Tick Tock. The Ministry is monitoring the posts and re-posts. They will be taken into custody. During the opening of the Riyadh season, Brigadier General Sami Shuwairaq, a spokesman for Public Security, said that a number of violations of public etiquette had been caught. Violations of public decency will be prosecuted regardless of age or gender. A public safety spokesman has warned against using mobile phones, taking pictures of strangers and violating privacy. In such cases, action will be taken under the Cyber ​​Crime Prevention Act. The penalty is a fine or imprisonment for up to one year. The ministry warned that there would be no fallout if the law was violated."

That aside, it is nice to see so many Saudi families and young people having some live external culture and events to see. So if you are in Riyadh this winter, there should be something for you to see.

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