Cirque du Soleil, Andrea Bocelli and Maroon 5 are just some of the names set to perform in Saudi Arabia as part of an ambitious new $64 billion project aimed at developing the country’s entertainment industry over the next 10 years.

At a recent media conference in Riyadh, Ahmad bin Aqeel al-Khatib, chief of the Kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority, confirmed more than 5,000 events were planned for this year alone.

The investment is part of a range of social and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia, known as Vision 2030, which were introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in 2016. The aim is to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and reduce its reliance on the oil industry, which has been hit by falling oil prices.

Circus troupe performs in Saudi Arabia
Image: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Change began in earnest last year after Saudi Arabia announced funding of more than $26 billion to expand the Grand Mosque in Mecca to accommodate more pilgrims during the Haj week. It also revealed plans to spend $3.5 billion on a nearby hotel that, with 10,000 rooms, would be the world’s largest.

The $500 billion ‘megacity’

While estimates suggest Saudi Arabia is spending $80 billion on Mecca alone, when initiatives such as the Mecca-Medina rail link are included, the Kingdom’s $500 billion “megacity” is easily the most ambitious project.

NEOM will run on 100% renewable energy
Image: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

The project, called NEOM, will measure 10,230 square miles, which is more than 33 times the land area of New York City. It will be financed by the Saudi Government and private investors and will connect the country to Jordan and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia says NEOM will be home to a vast array of different companies, from biotech firms to restaurants and art museums – all of which will be completely powered by renewable energy, with the city’s first phase expected to be completed in 2025.

Announcing the project at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last year, bin Salman said: “This place is not for conventional people or conventional companies, this will be a place for the dreamers for the world. The strong political will and the desire of a nation. All the success factors are there to create something big in Saudi Arabia.”

What’s changing for women?

These initiatives coincide with moves to relax a number of laws that have prohibited women from taking a more active role in society.

In January, for example, women were allowed to watch a football match at a stadium for the first time. From June, women will be legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia – another first for the country.

Saudi women watching football in Riyadh
Image: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

But despite some reforms, Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, which requires a woman to have a male relative or husband who can make critical decisions on her behalf, remains in place. The country also has a long way to go to close its gender gap, as highlighted by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2016, which ranks the country 141st out of 144.