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'Tis the Season

As part of Saudi Arabia’s western influence cultural awakening, the General Authority for Entertainment (a.k.a. Ministry of Fun) has declared a major event called “Riyadh Season”. Promoted mostly via social media, it is running from  11th October for 6 weeks. At eight sites across the city – typically open sandy land – all sorts of tents and amusement contraptions have popped up. So what’s unusual about that? In any other country in the world, nothing. But in Riyadh, this was the first time that any sort of outdoor amusements have been seen in quantity. Tes, there are a couple of long-established walled amusement parks in the city, and my understanding is that they are somewhat underwhelming. And anyway, they are segregated with men allowed on certain days, and women and children on others. So open air fun for all is a real novelty. My spies tell me that all of them are absolutely heaving with eager Riyadhians who have never seen anything like it.
To add to the sense of occasion the new fun zones have been given names. So we have Riyadh Boulevard, Riyadh Front and Winter Wonderland, alongside more traditional names such as Al Najd, Wadi Namar, Al Murbba, Al Janadriyah and Ad Diriyah which are established event and exhibition sites in or near the city.

The two main entertainment zones in the city itself are Riyadh Boulevard and Winter Wonderland, which are both located north of the city centre. Here one can now find funfairs and lots of activities stanted towards the younger generations. Examples include Lego building, sim-car racing, Real Madrid Football Expo, a Horror Carnival, and a Night Garden (a light spectacular). Every Thursday during the Season there is a fireworks spectacular with pyrotechnic shows off the city skyscrapers. The Boulevard has a musical floodlit fountain, and the W.W. has a big Ferris Wheel.

Possibly the most bizarre thing in the city is the outdoor ice rink at the Winter Wonderland. Yes, outdoors. Under the stars. No cover. Honestly. I visited it the day before its official opening in October, as some of the sites go for "soft openings" when they are nearly ready. Soft was not the word to apply here, the more accurate one is liquid. I had gone to see if there were any curling options that we could explore, and I found what looked like a very shallow paddling pool. Daytime temperatures in Riyadh in October averaged 35 degrees Celcius (95 Fahrenheit) this year, with night-time down to 21 C (70 F). Even in December the averages will still be 22/10 C. (72/50 F). The ice coolant plant was powered by 4 big 250kw heat pump chillers supplied by Aggreko which were running at full pelt. That's 1 megawatt of power, and according to Mr Google is enough tp power 1,000 average homes. But it still wasn't freezing. A lesson to be learned here is that the availability of wealth and resources can't overcome the laws of physics. Canute's Law. Hopefully as the days get cooler the ice will get a chance to form. I have seen many, many ice rinks across the world, but this one takes the biscuit.

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The "ice rink" at Winter Wonderland

Another activity listed in the Riyadh Season is a Wildlife Safari. This is at Nofa, 1 hour outside the city, and we visited that last year. Their collection of animals has now been pimped up with the addition of lions, tigers and elephants.. I do hope that the security of the visitors has been enhanced from the open top jeeps that we toured the park in, and that the animals are being well cared for.

At Janadriyah, the cultural exhibition site outside the city has been hosting a series of motor themed events. Here we have the Riyadh Car Show, advertised as a collection of business class and decision makers meeting to display their vehicles. Next there is the "Bonnier Car Exhibition" which is an exhibition of luxury and rare cars. I suspect there may be some crossover between these two events. Then there is a "Monster Jam" exhibition of "bigfoot trucks" (pick up trucks with huge wheels and raised suspension), along with a "Hot Wheels Motor Speedway", and the piece de resistance, a Human Cannonball show.

More down to earth seems to be a nice family outing to Wadi Namar for a treasure hunt. But my pick would be going to see Cirque du Soleil who are performing at Riyadh Front. 

Putting things into perspective, I remember at Saudi National Day (24 September) in 2017 remarking that the authorities had pushed the boat out (figuratively, not literaly) by arranging for two of the city centre towers to be illuminated. There were traffic jams as citizens came out to see that novelty. Fast forward to 2019 and we are modernising very quickly indeed. 

And the latest news is that as a result of the success and visitor numbers so far, the Crown Prince M.B.S. has ordered that the Season be extended by a month into January.

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