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Saudi Arabia sacks chief of General Entertainment Authority

A video circulating on social media showing a female circus performer in tight costume drew outrage from Saudis.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia has sacked the head of its entertainment authority after a Russian circus featuring women wearing tight costumes drew criticism in the kingdom.

The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced on Monday that chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority (GEA) Ahmad al-Khatib had been removed from his position, citing a royal decree, without giving a reason.

The pro-government Sabq news website, however, said al-Khatib was dismissed over a circus performance in Riyadh, which included women wearing "indecent clothes".

A video circulating on social media appeared to show a female performer in a tight pink costume, drawing outrage from Saudi conservatives.

Al-Khatib's sacking comes amid far-reaching reforms by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which include ending decades-long bans on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts.

Al-Khatib had been leading a multibillion-dollar initiative to turn the kingdom into a culture and entertainment hub.

The GEA announced in February that it would hold more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018 and pump $64bn into the sector over the coming decade.

The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom has been reeling from an oil slump since 2014.

Commenting on the news, Ali Shihabi, director of Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, said on Twitter: "Cynics who lightly dismiss the colossal challenges that (the prince) faces in his social reforms should view this video of young Saudi men passionately denouncing the presence of a Russian circus with women performers in their country."

The video posted by Shihabi included a cutaway shot from the circus and monologues from several men who emphasised the need to uphold Islamic principles.

Al-Khatib was appointed in 2016 as the head of the country's entertainment authority, seen as the main engine of the kingdom's social transformation.

"This authority has been a key player in driving social change in the kingdom and hence has been heavily criticised by conservatives," Shihabi tweeted.

Al-Khatib's firing comes amid a crackdown on women's rights activists in the kingdom, which has seen dozens of activists detained, many of whom have been temporarily released "until the completion of their procedural review".

His removal also follows a major cabinet reshuffle earlier this month that saw a heavy focus on culture and religion, as the kingdom undergoes a major image overhaul.

This was the second significant government change since the appointment of bin Salman, son of the king, as heir to the region's most powerful throne.


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