A Yemeni man stabbed three performers during a live play in the Saudi capital Monday, police said, in the first such attack since the ultra-conservative kingdom began easing decades-old restrictions on entertainment.
The assailant was arrested after state television footage showed him stomping onto the stage in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Park during a musical performance by what appeared to be a foreign theater troupe.
“Security forces dealt with a… stabbing attack against two men and a woman from a theater group during a live performance,” a police spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Police said the man arrested was a 33-year-old Yemeni expatriate and that the knife used in the attack was seized.
The statement added the victims were in stable condition but offered no information about their nationality or the motivation of the assailant.
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 austere 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 liberalization 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.
But Saudi officials warn that introducing such reforms in a society steeped in conservatism is fraught with peril.
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.
“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.
Earlier this year, human rights campaigners reported the arrest of religious scholar Omar al-Muqbil after he criticized the Saudi General Entertainment Authority for hosting such concerts, saying they were “erasing Saudi society’s original identity.”
“Liberals and conservatives in the kingdom are on a collision course and that probably worries Saudi leaders the most,” Quentin de Pimodan, a Saudi expert at the Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies, told AFP.
“After this attack we can expect a sharper crackdown on those opposed to Saudi’s entertainment push.”
Saudi Arabia has already drawn international censure for its sweeping crackdown on critics, including clerics, intellectuals and women activists.
The kingdom has faced international scrutiny over its human rights record since last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents 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.