In late December 2019, posters promoting an open-air New Year's Eve celebration on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh were circulated in Saudi Arabia. One of the posters even bore the imprint of the General Authority for Entertainment, which is responsible for developing the kingdom's entertainment sector. The announcement of the festivities was enthusiastically received in the Saudi press, where it was called an historic precedent in the country. Reactions on social media were mixed: Some were excited, even overjoyed, while others were disapproving, saying that it will mark a foreign event that is forbidden by Islamic law.
It should be noted that a few Saudi clerics have recently spoken out against celebrating Christian and foreign holidays, including New Year's.
However, on December 27, the entertainment authority tweeted that the celebration had been canceled because it had not issued a permit for it, adding that legal measures would be taken against the organizer. It is possible that the criticism of the event had prompted the authority to rescind its sponsorship of it. Its announcement of the cancellation also prompted varied reactions on social media, ranging from disappointment to satisfaction at the preservation of the kingdom's religious character.
The Saudi establishment, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has instituted a declared policy of offering a wide range of cultural and entertainment activity in public spaces, as part of the Vision 2030 program, with the aim of creating more sources of revenue for the country and bringing it into the fold of the developed countries. The establishment of the General Authority for Entertainment, in 2016 by royal decree, is part of this program. However, the religious and conservative sector of the country's population opposes many of the authority's activities and considers them to be morally objectionable, if not outright heresy.
The range of responses to the New Year's Eve celebration, and to the government's cancellation of it after first granting and then rescinding its approval, shows the sensitivity of the issue of culture and entertainment in the kingdom, and reflects the conflict regarding it in the Saudi leadership in recent years. On the one hand, the leadership is attempting to promote modernization and openness vis-à-vis the West, while on the other it is trying to maintain the religious identity of Saudi society and to refrain from stirring up the Saudi religious establishment.
Promotional poster for the New Year's Eve celebrations; imprint of the General Authority for Entertainment is at upper right (source: riyadh.platinumlist.net)
This report will review the promotion and subsequent cancellation of the Riyadh New Year's Eve celebration and the reactions on Twitter to them.
Promoting The New Year's Eve Event: "Saudi Arabia Will Celebrate The Christian [New] Year For The First Time In Its History"
The New Year's Eve celebration was to be held at the Malham Center in the province of Huraymila northwest of Riyadh, and was to include a fire show, fireworks, a countdown to midnight, a deejay, and games around a bonfire. It was promoted on social media in Saudi Arabia on December 23, along with important Saudi cultural events supported by the entertainment authority, and on a ticket sales website called Platinumlist. The poster, as noted, included the imprint of the authority. That same day, it was reported that tickets for the event were already sold out. On December 26, the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah published a report on its front page headlined "Saudi Arabia Will Celebrate the Christian [New] Year for the First Time in Its History," which also appeared on the daily's website.
The report on the Al-Jazirah daily's website: "Saudi Arabia Will Celebrate the Christian [New] Year for the First Time in Its History" (al-jazirah.com, December 26, 2019)
Entertainment Authority Announces Event's Cancellation, Measures Taken Against Its Organizers
However, the day after Al-Jazirah published its report, the entertainment authority tweeted a clarification stating: "The General Authority for Entertainment hereby announces that it did not issue a permit for the Christian New Year celebrations at Malham Center in the province of Huraymila in Riyadh, that was circulated on social media. The authority emphasizes that the [company that] organized [the event] has been prohibited [from holding it] and that [the issue] will be transferred to the authorities in Riyadh province so that legal measures may be taken against [the company]."
The entertainment authority's tweet reneging on its sponsorship of the event
Saudi Religious Circles Object To Celebrating New Year's Eve
Well-known elements in the Saudi religious establishment expressed religious objections to the celebration of the secular new year, and this was apparently a factor in the cancellation. Saudi preacher 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rays, director of the Ancient Islam fatwa website, tweeted, between December 21 and December 27, his objections to celebrating Christmas and New Year's, and even to wishing celebrants a happy holiday. In his tweets, he referred to clerics' fatwas throughout Muslim history and to the writings of prominent Saudi religious scholars of the past. A poster that he tweeted on December 21 stood out; it referred readers to sources in the hadiths instructing Muslims to celebrate only holidays on the Muslim calendar and banning "attending the infidel's holidays." Additionally, on December 27, he tweeted a poster quoting fatwas by leading Saudi religious authorities prohibiting Muslims from participating in Christian holiday celebrations. He wrote in the tweet: "Oh nation of Muhammad in the East and West, cling to Allah and do not celebrate the Christian new year, since this is forbidden. Do not lend your hand to transgression by attending [New Year's] parties. The prohibition is even stricter if the event [includes] music, [gender] mixing or other reprehensible phenomena." The following are the fatwas of your senior clerics regarding the prohibition on this."
Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rays' December 27, 2019 tweet
On December 28, the Sheikh Muhammad bin Salih Al-Uthaymeen charity organization tweeted an old fatwa by the sheikh that banned wishing Christians a happy Christmas or happy new year.
The fatwa on the charity organization's Twitter page
Likewise, on January 1, 2020, the Charity Organization for Spreading the Legacy of the Former Saudi Mufti 'Abd Al-'Aziz Ibn Baz tweeted a religious Q&A by Ibn Baz prohibiting Muslims from attending celebrations of Christian and Jewish holidays, so as not to be like them.
Celebration Opponents: It's Prohibited By Religious Law; The Organizers Deserve To Be Executed; The Entertainment Authority Is Harming Morality
Following the promotion of the New Year's Eve event, many Saudis took to Twitter to express their opposition to it for religious reasons. "NM" tweeted: "According to shari'a, it is forbidden to celebrate [the Christian] New Year, and there is great danger to those who do so. The Prophet [Muhammad] instructed us to celebrate the holiday of the breaking of the fast [of Ramadan] and the holiday of the sacrifice, both of which are holidays for every Muslim, and prohibited us from adopting [the customs of] the Jews and Christians. Thus, every Muslim must beware of violating the commandment of Allah and His messenger Muhammad..."
"Abu Mu’adh" also tweeted his distaste at the celebration, sharing a link to a sermon by the late senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Muhammad bin Salih Al-Uthaymeen forbidding New Year's celebrations. Along with the link he wrote: "Oh Allah, do not punish us for the actions of the idiots among us. Oh Allah, do not allow those who seek to spread heresy and deviance from the tradition to do so, and do not allow them to carry out a plan that is [an attempt] to be like the infidels and [to adopt] their holidays."
Abu Mu’adh’s tweet
Other reactions to the cancellation of the celebration included numerous tweets expressing satisfaction with the decision and emphasizing that Saudi Arabia is a religious country where celebrating New Year's is inappropriate. A Saudi user called "Adel" tweeted from Japan: "[This is] the best announcement. May Allah reward you with good. We are a land of monotheism, and we do not want their celebrations." "Al-Walid Al-Taktiki" tweeted: "What did you think, that you would worship other gods besides Allah? By my life, we want the organizer of [this] event put to death."
"Nojoud 'Abd Al-'Aziz" also tweeted her joy at the event's cancellation and her criticism of the entertainment authority's policy of organizing such celebrations: "By Allah, all our lives the state budget has been based on oil – not on New Year's and not on Christian and Jewish celebrations."
Nojoud Abd Al-'Aziz's tweet
Others criticized the entertainment authority in general. For example, "Abu Al-Walid Abdallah" tweeted: "This is the authority for corruption, not entertainment... Its aim is to morally weaken society, not to entertain."
Celebration Proponents: We Want To Party; The Entertainment Authority Is Zigzagging; The Religious Circles Are Harming The Kingdom
Many Saudis were delighted about the planned New Year's Eve event and were disappointed at its cancellation. In response to the promotion of the event, "Karza" tweeted: "Love it! We want [parties like this] in every province of the kingdom." Ismail 'Arishi from Jazan tweeted: "We want this [party held] in every Saudi province." Additionally, "Faisal ♥ MBS" tweeted: "Finally. A great move, good luck!" enhancing his tweet with emojis reflecting his enthusiasm.
Faisal ♥ MBS 's tweet
Likewise, the entertainment authority's announcement of the celebration's cancellation prompted sadness. "No" tweeted: "Why didn't you issue a permit for it [i.e. the event]? We want parties in all the cities. You're stifling us."
"Shams" from Riyadh wrote: "Ok, [but] we do want a New Year's Eve party" and added crying-face emojis.
Saudis also tweeted that the entertainment authority was being inconsistent, noting that other New Year's Eve events were being held with its blessing, or under its auspices, such as the one on December 31 featuring the popular singer Muhammad 'Abdou.
"Awdah Al-'Akla" responded to the Entertainment Authority’s cancellation of the party by tweeting a screenshot of a tweet posted by the Authority a few days previously, of an invitation to a December 31 performance by 'Abdou. The invitation stated: "The best ending for the year, honoring the greatest national artistic figure... the artist Muhammad 'Abdou, on December 31." Al-'Akla added: "[So] why is this show held on the 31st [of December], and [why] do you make a point of noting that it's the end [of the year]? What does that mean?"
Awdah Al-'Akla's tweet
"Khatanter" saw the Entertainment Authority's cancelation of the party as a capitulation to the Saudi religious circles that opposed the celebration, writing: "Dubai or Bahrain are nearby. We will go there to celebrate. Let these extremists [stay in Saudi Arabia] to help build your economy."
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