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Conservative Saudi Arabia loosens up

RIYADH (AFP) - 

Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most conservative countries, is taking major steps to open up, allowing women more freedoms and boosting entertainment options for its mostly young population.

The reforms are part of sweeping changes to diversify its oil-dependent economy and an image overhaul led by the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

As Saudi Arabia gears up to host its first public film screening in over 35 years on Friday, here is an overview:

- Conservative turn in 1979 -

Saudi society has been dominated by a harsh strain of conservative Islam since the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by around 400 extremists.

They were angered at what they saw as Saudi society's plunge into immorality, with Muslims embracing "Western" entertainment like cinema, television and sports, and women taking jobs.

A bloody military assault dislodged them two weeks later, leaving scores dead on both sides, but their influence remained.

Religious leaders moved to ban movie theatres and concerts and impose restrictions on women, including requiring them to be covered in a full-length black abaya in public and limiting their role in society.

"We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal," Prince Mohammed said on CBS television in March, referring to the turn towards conservatism four decades ago.

- Sweeping reforms -

In April 2016, the Saudi government approved plans for major reform that were initiated by Mohammed before he was named crown prince in June 2017.

Aimed at reducing the world's top oil exporter's dependence on black gold, Vision 2030 includes privatising part of oil giant Aramco and setting up a $2-trillion sovereign wealth fund.

It will also elevate the role of women in the workforce and massively invest in the underdeveloped entertainment sector to boost domestic spending.

In October 2017, Prince Mohammed pledged a "moderate, open" Saudi Arabia, telling a forum of international investors: "We want to live a normal life."

- Women stepping out -

In September 2017, a royal decree announced the end of a ban on women driving -- the only one of its kind in the world -- as of June 2018.

Women were allowed to enter a football stadium to watch a match for the first time in January 2018, in an easing of rules separating the sexes.

In February, the government announced women will be allowed to open their own businesses without the consent of a male relative, and the prosecutor's office said it will recruit women as investigators for the first time.

The same month, a senior scholar on the kingdom's highest religious body said on television that Saudi women should not have to wear the abaya.

It is the first such comment from a senior religious figure.

Restrictions remain though, including that women need permission from a male relative to study, travel and engage in other activities.

- Catwalks and cinema -

In February 2018, the kingdom announced it will invest $64 billion in its entertainment sector, including for new venues and flying in Western acts.

Saudis currently spend billions of dollars annually on entertainment in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai.

The country hosted its first-ever jazz festival in February and its first version, in April, of the Arab Fashion Week previously hosted exclusively in Dubai, although the Riyadh event was women-only.

The first cinema in over three decades will open on April 18 in the capital, the licence going to US giant AMC Entertainment.

And Riyadh has engaged French expertise to help with the establishment of a national opera and orchestra.

- 'White oil' of tourism -

In December 2017, Saudi Arabia announced it will begin issuing tourist visas in 2018, another first for the desert kingdom and touted as its "white oil".

In August 2017, the crown prince announced a massive tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

© 2018 AFP