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Saudis reel as clerics say movie show must not go on.

Saudis want music and movies like everyone else, but the cancellation of the Jeddah film festival highlights the tough war over entertainment within the country's conservative religious establishment.

For several years Saudis have been pushing to roll back bans on concerts and movies, which the country's top clerics label evil.

But Friday's 11th-hour cancellation of the Jeddah festival -- an event that had won high-level permission -- showed the clerics are holding their ground.

"We were hoping that things like the Jeddah film festival, the Gulf film festival in Khobar, that these very humble efforts would lead the change. But we got the message it is not the time," said filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh.

The setback was a stark reminder of the difference between Saudi Arabia and everywhere else in the Arab world, where movies and concerts freely take place -- with travelling Saudis often in the audience.

Saudi Arabia's most famous entertainer Mohamed Abdo, for instance, plays the oud, sings, and recites classical poetry in sold-out concerts around the Arab world, but he cannot give a normal public performance in Saudi Arabia.

The cancellation of the seemingly breakthrough film festival was a shock, locals said.

The order was issued by the city just two days after it endorsed the movie showings as part of the "Jeddah is Different" summer festival.

The film festival "lacked preparations," city spokesman Ahmad Al-Ghamdi told Arab News. But organizers say they understood the order came from the highest reaches of the government, under pressure from clerics.

Saudis had drawn encouragement in recent months from the push by Rotana, the group controlled by progressive billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to show its homemade comedy movie "Menahi" in halls in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Against tough resistance, the shows went ahead, and Rotana boldly put itself up as the main sponsor of the Jeddah festival, which would have shown more than 100 feature and short films over a week.

"Films and movie theatres will come inevitably," Alwaleed declared in February.

But the cancellation was only one of several reversals for proponents of freer access to entertainment in Saudi Arabia, which include businesses like Rotana, scores of rock, hip hop and heavy metal groups who can only perform at private parties, dozens of hopeful filmmakers, artists, and all their fans.

For the first time in years the official summer festival in Asir will not have music concerts, either of traditional performers like Abdo or imported pop stars from Egypt or Lebanon.

In May a French embassy-sponsored concert by operatic soprano Isabelle Poulenard, performing with a female accompanist to a women-only audience in Riyadh, was forbidden just two days before the date after gaining full permissions.

The concert finally went ahead following an apparent high-level skirmish between religious and other officials, said a person associated with the event.

In early July a concert billed as "Midnight Acoustic" inside a Riyadh housing compound for foreigners -- normally insulated from the strict Saudi cultural rules -- was shut down halfway through when the religious police arrived at the compound's gates.

Half the 500-strong audiences were Saudis, according to one person who attended.

The setbacks have dimmed the hopes of Saudis who saw an opening after relatively progressive King Abdullah took the throne in 2005. They were encouraged when he purged the government of a number of conservative clerics earlier this year.

But the religious establishment now appears to have drawn a line in the sand over public cinema and music, backed by official fatwas (religious edicts).

"Attending the cinema and having access to it is taboo and is forbidden because most of what it displays is forbidden distractions that create disorder," says one posting on the government fatwa website.

"Music and all other elements of distraction are considered evil," says another.

The irony is that most Saudis are exposed to the freewheeling entertainment culture outside their borders. They travel abroad liberally to Bahrain, Dubai, Egypt and Lebanon to attend films and concerts.

"When Mohamed Abdo performs in Cairo or Beirut, the audience is mostly Saudis," said a music industry figure.

At home too, they get it all on television and video. Mazen Hayek, marketing director for leading regional satellite broadcaster MBC, says Saudis gobble up their fare of popular western and Arabic series, films, and music shows, none of which are tailored for Saudi mores.

"Saudi Arabia is one of our primary markets," he said.

Daily NewsEgypt 2009

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Publication:Daily News Egypt (Egypt)
Date:Jul 21, 2009
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