Yaser al-Hazzazi stopped to adjust the bloodied gauze covering his head and face as he was bathed in a strange glow. Before the two entered a mob of individuals wearing devil horns and bunny ears, his cousin Yahya reached in to assist, untangling a loose strand that dangled over his relative’s white robe that was stained with a bloody handprint.
The two 21-year-old men had never heard of Halloween growing up in Saudi Arabia since the conservative Islamic nation often regarded it as an immoral, pointless, and strange foreign celebration. In 2018, when the police raided a Halloween party and made arrests, ladies in costumes scrambled to hide and flee.
However, this year, some areas of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, appeared to be overrun by escaping ghosts from a haunted mansion. There were monsters, witches, bank robbers, and even seductive French maids hanging out of car windows and relaxing at cafes all over the place. The image served as a clear, if perhaps spine-chilling, illustration of the profound changes that have swept Saudi Arabia since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s current prime minister and heir to the kingdom, rose to prominence in 2015 and began gradually removing social constraints.
The cousins were delighted by the opportunity to scare each other, as were the thousands of other 20-somethings in Riyadh who had hurried to the city’s costume shops before they sold out.
At Boulevard Riyadh City, a vast complex of stores, arcades, and restaurants that opened in 2019, Yahya al-Hazzazi said, “If we go back to the way we were, this wasn’t part of our customs and traditions.” as part of the government’s push to provide entertainment. “We love to discover new things.”
In 2016, Prince Mohammed unveiled a plan for economic diversification that aimed to make the country a centre for international trade and investment. Women were given the right to drive, and the religious police lost their ability to conduct arrests, making them essentially useless advisors. There are still certain restrictions from the male guardianship system, although many of them have been removed.
The 37-year-old Prince Mohammed also launched an initiative to create entertainment as a brand-new industry outside of oil. The majority of Saudis under 30 (58%) claim they were severely lacking in entertainment prior to the changes.
Through a combination of manipulation and control on social media, the government has created a narrative that progressively glorifies the crown prince and his “Vision 2030” agenda.
In private, some Saudis bemoan how the entertainment drive feels like a diversion from the country’s political and economic problems, such as the high youth unemployment rate. On events like Saudi National Day and right now Halloween, the chaotic, carnival-like atmosphere is permitted to briefly explode before being promptly contained.
But many young people appreciate any opportunity to have fun.
Halloween is the busiest season of the year at Party Experts, where store manager Raad al-Kamel, 25, said, “We’re seeing what the government is doing here, which is amazing, and it’s truly helping the people.”
He asked, a tiny crimson monster perched on his shoulder, “Maybe people just want to dump life and just party and forget everything?” “Until they return to real life, at least for a moment.”
The public Halloween events this past weekend, which were organised for the second time, seemed to draw more adults than kids. Children’s costumes were consigned to a small area towards the back of Party Experts.
Young males looked at an ornate and frightful wall of rubber masks in the front. There were countless options for women’s costumes. A Playtime bunny and a Tuxedo Madame Bunny, a Sophisticated Maid and a Pretty and Proper French Maid, a Kitty Witch, a Sultry Sea Witch, a Spellbinding Witch, and the puzzling Darling Robin Hood were among the women present.
Some of the Halloween revellers at Riyadh Boulevard City appeared to have little to no understanding of the holiday and were merely there for the atmosphere.
Abdulaziz al-Otaibi, 24, had planned identical outfits for himself and two companions, covering them from head to toe in gleaming white fabric and accessorising with purple-rimmed sunglasses.
When asked what he thought about Halloween, he sounded uncertain and responded, “You mean these activities?”
Whatever the case, he was having a great time with his friends and acting silly for the camera.
I was born into this world, and I never anticipated it to change, he remarked. “But something changed, and that’s nice,”