In most respects, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a relatively untapped country in the Middle East despite it being the largest in terms of economy and population size in the region. Historically, the oil-rich nation has primarily focused on its liquid gold as its economic anchor, with little attention given to other sectors such as services.
Due to rapid fluctuations in the oil price over the last decade, most of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) members have had to diversify economically as is the case in the western world. The events industry has been one of the service sectors that has been fortunate enough to be a part of this change.
Coming in first place in the region in terms of events has usually been the United Arab Emirates; more specifically in the popular Dubai and Abu Dhabi areas. The small country hosts the most events in the region on a per capita basis. The Saudi government decided to jump onto this bandwagon.
A shift in policy
The government-led transformation of the events industry in Saudi Arabia has been seen as a good opportunity to take advantage of its over 34 million inhabitants. From business and health to entertainment and leisure as potential international event hosting areas, the country is using a strategic approach to enhance its offerings.
As part of its self-proclaimed ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, the nation has been upgrading its business and infrastructure capabilities. A part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision Realization Programs has been to boost its tourism and entertainment areas.
In 2016, the government pledged to invest US$1.6 billion by 2020 in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry and become the leading events destination in the GCC. Due to the pandemic, it still remains to be seen how much has been achieved since then as most events have gone virtual.
Introducing an events culture
According to Vision 2030, entertainment venues have increased from 154 in 2017 to 277 in 2020. That is quite a remarkable increase and provides opportunities for hosting future events.
Since the Vision was adopted, over 2,000 events have been hosted, with over 46 million visitors. This is echoed by the words of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) CEO, Amr Banaja, who said that “there is a huge appetite and demand for a solid entertainment sector in the Kingdom.”
On the local front, the government is aiming to increase household spending on entertainment and cultural activities from 2.6% to 6% by 2030. The aim is to become the top events destination in the region through local and international visitors.
Given its deep oil-backed pockets, it’s no surprise that the government plans to spend over $64 billion on uplifting the entertainment industry by 2030. This means that there is so much potential for those in the events and entertainment industries as the future looks promising.
A few speed bumps
One of the main challenges acting as a bottleneck to the Kingdom’s plans is the issue of delayed visas. As part of its digital transformation, the nation has reduced processing time for visas from two weeks to five minutes. This makes it easier for any last minute trips or for postponed events.
Locally, the overreliance on oil is affected by rapid oil price movements which then threatens the disposable income of most Saudis. This could lead to many cutting back on any non-essential spending such as entertainment and cultural activities, which goes against the government’s objectives.
Unsurprisingly, due to the rapid growth of this sector, a skills gap has been created among conference and event practitioners. It’s one thing to host millions of people but quite another to run a well-oiled and memorable event that drives repeat business.
To help with this, the sector has been courting international event companies to provide their expertise, while local training facilities have been established, such as Saudi Event Management Academy.
Looking to the future
The cities of Riyadh and Makkah currently host the majority of events in the country and growth is poised to be targeted in these areas in Vision 2030. While the pandemic dealt a major blow to the events sector in Saudi Arabia as well as globally, the government is still committed to continuing to invest in it.
The recovery of the oil price is providing a boost for this growth and Saudi Arabia’s commitment to increasing global tourism is seen by the $100 million pledge in partnership with the World Bank.
On the infrastructure side, since most events are held in and around hotels, hotel chains have been expanding rapidly. One example of this is the global Louvre Hotels Group that plans on increasing the number of hotels it has in the Kingdom from 16 to 50 by 2025.
This is just one of many current developments (mainly concentrated in Makkah) as the nation is set on fulfilling its growth and diversification strategy, with over 73,000 new hotel rooms on the cards nationally. Saudi Arabia’s well documented restrictive dress codes are also being loosened, with plans to create tourist friendly zones or districts.
The events sector is Saudi Arabia is demonstrably on the rise and the country is dedicated to throwing in as many resources as possible to achieve this. There is so much potential and the changing social climate makes it easier to achieve these goals and attract more international visitors.
Want to host an event of your own in this region? Get in touch with The Event Production Company.