Saudi Arabia to Build Entertainment Complex After Decades of Curbing Leisure Activities

Center will be developed in Riyadh by a company operating under kingdom's wealth fund and will feature sports activities, live shows, restaurants and cinemas

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People seen at Riyadh Park during the opening of a cinema, April 30, 2018.
People seen at Riyadh Park during the opening of a cinema, April 30, 2018.Credit: \ Faisal Nasser/ REUTERS

Saudi Arabia announced plans on Wednesday to build an entertainment complex in the capital Riyadh, the latest in a series of state-backed efforts to encourage public leisure activities after decades of tight social restrictions.

The 100,000 square meter complex will be developed by the Saudi Entertainment Ventures Company (SEVEN), a wholly owned subsidiary of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, according to a statement carried by state news agency SPA.

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The project will feature sports activities, live performances, restaurants and cinemas, it said. It did not specify the value of the investment.

The Public Investment Fund established SEVEN last year with initial funding of 10 billion riyals ($2.67 billion) and hired former Disney executive Bill Ernest to run it.

The company aims to set up about 20 entertainment centers around the country over the next several years, as Saudi Arabia tries to use the leisure sector to create jobs, liberalize social norms and diversify the economy beyond oil exports.

SEVEN has already opened the kingdom’s first cinema in nearly four decades, in partnership with U.S. based AMC Group, and hopes to attract private companies to invest alongside it at all of its projects.

Those plans could be complicated by fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in October, which has led some foreign media and technology companies to distance themselves from the kingdom.

Since the murder, British billionaire Richard Branson has suspended his directorship in two PIF-backed tourism projects along the Red Sea coast. No investors have yet been announced for the ventures.

Hollywood talent agency Endeavor is close to terminating an agreed $400 million investment from PIF over reputational concerns, while Legendary Entertainment said in November it had “no interest” in conducting a proposed transaction with the fund.

However, theme park operator Six Flags is going ahead with plans to open one of its facilities at Qiddiya, a huge resort area the PIF is planning to build outside Riyadh which will also feature water parks, motor sports and cultural events.