RIYADH – Three performers were stabbed during a live play in the Saudi capital Monday, state television said, in the first such attack since the kingdom began easing decades-old restrictions on entertainment.
The assailant was arrested after he was seen stomping onto the stage in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Park during a musical performance by what appeared to be a foreign theatre troupe, television footage showed.
“Riyadh police have arrested an Arab resident in possession of a knife after he stabbed two men and a woman, who were members of a theatre group,” Al-Ekhbariya state television said.
It said the wounded were in stable condition but offered no information about the nationality of the performers or the motivations of the assailant.
The pro-government Okaz newspaper identified the attacker as a 33-year-old Yemeni national, citing Riyadh police.
The King Abdullah Park is one of the venues hosting the two-month “Riyadh Season”entertainment festival, part of a broad government push to open up the kingdom to tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.
The country’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced stunning reforms including allowing concerts, re-opening cinemas and lifting a ban on women driving as part of a contentious liberalisation drive.
In scenes that were unimaginable just two years ago, Saudi Arabia has staged glitzy performances by a host of international artists, from South Korean boy band BTS to pop icon Janet Jackson and rapper 50 Cent.
While they are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia’s majority young population, the reforms risk angering arch-conservatives, including hardline clerics and the religious police whose powers have been clipped in recent years.
Earlier this year, human rights campaigners reported the arrest of religious scholar Omar al-Muqbil after he criticised the Saudi General Entertainment Authority for hosting such concerts, saying they were “erasing Saudi society’s original identity”.
“The risk of this sort of attack against the recent introduction of public entertainment, which many clerics have been inciting against, is a key reason (the government) has pursued a zero tolerance policy towards their public attacks against change and reform,” Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi said on Twitter.
Alongside reforms, Saudi Arabia has drawn international censure for pursuing a sweeping crackdown on critics including clerics and women activists.
The kingdom has faced intense international scrutiny over its human rights record since last year’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Developing the tourism and leisure sector is one of the foundations of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to prepare the Arab world’s largest economy for the post-oil era.
The General Entertainment Authority has said it plans to pump $64 billion into the sector in the coming decade.
Some Saudis, however, view the push for entertainment as an attempt to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and high youth unemployment in the petro-state.