In 2016, Saudi Arabia established its General Authority for Entertainment (GAE), a government body coordinating entertainment activities, partnerships and projects in the Kingdom. Its purpose was to encourage the Saudis, who spend nearly 22 billion euros each year on their tourism activities abroad, to redirect half of these costs into the national leisure industry.
Two years later, the list of projects sponsored by GAE is well stocked: cinemas, concerts of national and foreign artists, car races, exhibitions, shows of all kinds and seasonal festivals. Among these, the Winter Day Out in Riyadh is now a place of pilgrimage.
30,000 visitors over 10 days
Organized in a residential complex in the north of the Saudi capital, the event, a kind of festive winter market, closed this Saturday its 2nd edition after a first opus that had attracted more than 30,000 visitors over a period of 10 days in 2017. Its organizers are young enthusiasts united under a label, The Gathering, a start-up specialized in family events. “Our motto is: ‘where happy is”, where you can spend a full day to remember. So this is what we are trying to achieve in every outing we do” says Saja Alhosain, co-founder of The Gathering.
This year, The Gathering expects more visitors and has pulled out all the stops for the occasion: a cosy green setting, garlands with shimmering lights as well as about thirty stands arranged in small houses and offering to discover culinary specialities, artists and crafts of all kinds. Icing on the cake: two musical groups offer daily shows in an electric atmosphere.
Frank Sinatra in town
Among them is a jazz band from the Netherlands. Frank in Person & The Skyline Orchestra perform Frank Sinatra’s repertoire in front of an audience drawn to the illustrious American jazzman. Frank – that’s also his first name -, the band’s singer is the first to be surprised by this enthusiasm.
“I expected it as a festival where everybody walks by and nobody really pays attention. This is how we do it in Europe. We found a very polite and thankful audience” he says. “I feel like the Beatles have entered their country” he added.
A Christmas market?
Garlands, stands, Sinatra in the background… The whole thing evokes the Western Christmas markets. But Saja Alhosainy denies it: “It’s not a Christmas market. We use element of our culture and our society, warm colors, nice ambience and yellow yellow lights…”
For The Gathering, the stakes are higher than just entertainment. “Our target was to to give the society here a beautiful platform to enjoy. I see them walking around and saying ‘Am I in Saudi? Am I in Riyadh?’. And this is what we wanted to achieve” concludes Saja.