Canada's Cirque du Soleil dazzles Riyadh after diplomatic row

Riyadh (AFP) –


Canada-based Cirque du Soleil staged their first show in Saudi Arabia on Sunday with a dazzling display of high-wire thrills, despite a diplomatic spat between Ottawa and Riyadh.

The acrobatic troupe performed in Riyadh to mark the Saudi national day, more than a month after the kingdom expelled Canada's ambassador and froze all new trade following Ottawa's vigorous calls for the release of activists jailed in the Gulf state.

Costumed performers slithered up ropes, swaying, twisting and doing mid-air acrobatics at a packed King Fahd sports stadium, with Cirque du Soleil saying the show was one of its biggest one-off productions ever.

More than 80 artists took the stage, with 250 costumes tailor made to conform to local traditions in the conservative desert kingdom, it said.

The announcement of the show was first made in Los Angeles in April during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's multi-city visit to the United States.

But diplomatic tensions had cast doubt over the show.

Canada has refused to give ground in the dispute, which erupted in August, vowing to always stand up for human rights globally, even as diplomats say high-level negotiations are ongoing between the two countries to resolve differences.

A furious Riyadh ordered Saudi students to pull out from Canadian universities, though more than 1,000 medical students have been granted an extension in a partial rollback.

The diplomatic rupture reflects Prince Mohammed's increasingly assertive foreign policy and it coincides with his growing clampdown on domestic critics.

National day was celebrated across the kingdom on Sunday with a raucous display of concerts and folk dance.

Some 990,000 fireworks were planned across 20 cities, including Riyadh, the information ministry said.

Iconic buildings in Riyadh were bathed in green light and stereos blared patriotic songs as revellers raced through the streets in cars bedecked with the national flag.

The ultra-conservative kingdom has cautiously begun introducing entertainment, including music concerts, despite the risk of riling sidelined hardliners.

It is part of Prince Mohammed's far-reaching liberalisation drive that has ended decades-long bans on cinemas and women drivers and allowed women and men to attend some concerts together.

In February, Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced it will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.