RIYADH: Saudi pianist Rowida Raffa took to the stage last September at Expo 2020 Dubai and amazed everyone with her skills, performing on Saudi National Day and playing different kinds of music. She also had an encouraging message to all female artists who aspired to be in her position one day.
“Different media agencies contacted me to represent the National Day at the expo, and I never imagined one day that I would be here representing my own country abroad. And, as a Saudi woman, I am very happy that the Kingdom is setting new regulations for practicing musicians,” Raffa told Arab News.
Raffa said she was prepared when media agencies approached her as she enjoyed playing the piano and had been practicing for 20 years.
Coming from a musical family, she said she had been encouraged by them to pursue her dream of becoming a pianist.
“My grandfather was a violinist, and music was always something that connected the family together. My brother is also a violinist, and I chose to be a pianist because I found myself in it.”
As a Saudi woman, I am very happy that the Kingdom is setting new regulations for practicing musicians.
Rowida Raffa, Saudi pianist
As well as the expo, Raffa has also performed with the award-winning international composer William Ross, whose work has graced feature films, the recording industry, and TV. His projects include “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“In 2018, I was invited to work with William Ross when the foundation stone for Qiddiya, (an entertainment megaproject to be built in Riyadh), was laid,” she said. “We did the opening song together and he is such a nice man. I’m glad my first participation in a national project was this significant.
“I played the opening of Alicia Keys’ concert in AlUla. The experience was amazing and working with international artists is a dream.”
She always played the piano for the passion and love she had for the instrument, and she strived to practice so that she could play more difficult music.
Raffa praised the Kingdom’s attention to music and for establishing a specialist commission, saying opportunities were available and that young talent should take advantage of these from a young age.
She believed that music was a universal language and a strong form of communication that enriched people’s lives, unified nations, and created cultural bridges.
“The Saudi people maybe led to a worldwide level by the Music Commission and other organizations and schools that teach you the essentials,” Raffa added.
JEDDAH: Saudi female baristas in cafés in most larger cities in the Kingdom say they have enjoyed widespread support from the people they come into contact with at work.
Arab News has been talking to some of them about their experiences.
Taibah Ibrahim Al-Ruhaili, a barista in her early twenties, joined Joffrey’s café in Jeddah 15 months ago after applying for barista jobs in many coffee shops.
She said her dream to be a barista finally came true thanks to her passion for coffee.
“I am a coffee enthusiast, and I would love to learn more about the secrets of making good coffee,” she said.
The biggest challenge she faced was work pressure and customer connection. However, she said she managed to overcome all the obstacles.
Remembering her first day, Al-Ruhaili said: “The team members who were working with me were very cooperative and I quickly learned the skills baristas need in their work. This made me come every day with more eagerness and readiness to learn something new,” she added.
Al-Ruhaili said that she learned how to both satisfy her customers with cups of coffee that hit the spot and shoulder responsibilities and bear work pressure.
“I learned self-discipline and commitment. I also learned how important work achievements are. In fact, I have learned many things that I was not aware of before.”
This was not accepted in the past, but with time people have become more civilized, and it has become normal to see women working everywhere. Some of my male customers proudly introduce their families to me. These families are now my frequent customers.
Faten Bahussein, Barista
Entasar Hubail, a barista from the Eastern Province, joined Starbucks in 2019 and has since been promoted from barista to shift supervisor and now to assistant store manager.
Hubail said she loves coffee and had volunteered in coffee exhibitions and even bought a coffee machine for her brother, although she is the one who ended up using it.
“I still remember when I bought my first coffee bean bag from Starbucks and made coffee from it. I enrolled in coffee roasting courses and learned new techniques,” she said.
She is also a chocolatier and is into pastry-making. The time came when she had to decide whether to pursue cooking or join a coffee company. She chose the latter and ended up in Starbucks.
Speaking about what attracted her to this job, she said that when she applied, she was surprised to have been accepted for the job, which she thought showed the company’s focus on promoting gender diversity and attracting local talent.
Entasar Hubail, a barista from the Eastern Province, joined Starbucks in 2019 and has since been promoted from barista to shift supervisor and now to assistant store manager.
When she started, Hubail had mixed feelings of surprise, happiness and fear. “I was afraid because I was a very shy person and suddenly I was going to have colleagues and customers to deal with. I, in fact, wanted to take this job opportunity to overcome my inhibitions and focus on understanding more about the coffee industry and building a future at this big company.
Like Al-Ruhaili, Hubail’s biggest challenge was dealing with customers; it was her first time communicating with strangers. She said that with time and practice she was able to overcome her fears.
“The first day I went to work was a truly frightening experience. It was something like my first day at school. I even wanted my mom and sister to go to work with me. Thankfully, I was able to get over my fears by pushing myself more and more,” she said.
Faten Bahussein, a university graduate of Islamic studies, is also a coffee aficionado whose mornings begin with a cup at home before she goes to Chocochino café, where she works.
“I had an old coffee-making machine, and I practiced making coffee during the curfew period. This has helped me to become good at it, and that reflected positively on my current career,” Bahussein said.
After nearly four years working as a barista, Bahussein said that she has noticed how people look much happier when they see a Saudi girl working in a restaurant.
“This was not accepted in the past, but with time people have become more civilized, and it has become normal to see women working everywhere. Some of my male customers proudly introduce their families to me. These families are now my frequent customers,” she said.
JEDDAH: When Saudi Arabia first announced it was lifting its 35-year ban on movie screening four years ago, few predicted the strides the Kingdom’s fledgling film industry would soon make.
Since April 18, 2018, Saudis have been free to visit local cinemas, a completely new experience for many.
“I watch a movie at least twice or three times a month and wouldn’t mind going more if not for my frequent travels,” Jawaher Abdullatif, a 35-year-old private sector worker from Riyadh, told Arab News.
“You’re transformed into the world of the film. It’s an amazing feeling and I love that I can finally do that in the comfort of a cinema nearby.”
The change was announced in 2017 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to improve quality of life in the Kingdom through entertainment.
For older generations who remember the days before the ban, the return of movie theaters was a heartening moment. Mostafa Zain, a retired engineer from Jeddah, recalls being captivated by cinema as a boy.
“I was good friends with the Jamjoums who established the first cinemas in the city,” Zain told Arab News.
“Even after the ban, I would always find the time to go watch a movie as I frequented Cairo a few times a year in the 1980s and ‘90s, and later on to the US. We’d always find the time for a movie. Today, I can wake up and check the movie listings and I book my film in no time. I don’t need to fly anywhere to watch a movie anymore.”
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The General Commission for Audiovisual Media, one of the governing authorities established to regulate and operate cinemas in the Kingdom, estimates there will be 2,600 movie screens in Saudi Arabia by 2030, in an industry worth around $1.2 billion.
More than 50 movie theaters, operating some 430 screens, have been established across the Kingdom, managed by Vox Cinemas, Muvi, Cinepolis, AMC, and Empire. “It takes less than five minutes to book a seat at a movie theater today,” Zain added.
Saudi Arabia’s first cinemas appeared in the Eastern Province in the 1930s, established by Westerner oil workers.
By the 1960s and ‘70s, cinemas had sprung up in major cities across the country. Films were screened in football clubs, backyards, courtyards and hotels.
But in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of the 1979 terrorist attack on Makkah’s Grand Mosque, religious conservatism began to gain traction in the Kingdom, discouraging public entertainment including cinema-going.
To get around the ban, many Saudis would regularly visit Bahrain or the UAE.
Nahar Al-Hamrani, a producer and managing director of AlMaha Films in Jeddah, would fly two-and-a-half-hours to Dubai to catch a film.
“Sometimes I’d only go to watch a film, grab a bite to eat, and head back home again,” he told Arab News.
“As soon as cinemas opened in Saudi Arabia, everything changed. Even the experience changed. It’s fun, convenient, and, for some odd reason, there’s just something different about going to the cinemas here. It’s right in our backyard.
“For many of us who traveled abroad during summer holidays, we’d have to wait for months just so we can go and experience the full movie experience. Now, it’s simply through a click on our screen and not part of our travel plans anymore.”
For a time, Western movies appeared on television via MBC2 or via direct satellite networks such as Orbit, which later merged with Showtime to become the Orbit Showtime Network.
Most Saudis could only access Western movies on smuggled VHS. When DVDs appeared, they would watch blurry knock-offs bought from street-hawkers or from behind the counter at local stores.
Speaking at a special event at Riyadh’s Apex Convention Center in December 2017, organized by the General Authority for Entertainment to mark the lifting of the ban, Hollywood actor John Travolta hailed the historic move.
“I think it’s an important moment and history, because it’s my understanding that this is the only country in the world that doesn’t have cinema and the idea that it is now happening again after 35 years, I feel like I am part of a celebration of freedom that is connected to a beautiful thing in humanity, so that’s a good thing,” Travolta said.
Cinema giants have begun pouring into the country.
Owned and operated by Majid Al-Futtaim Cinemas, VOX Cinemas is the cinema arm of Emirati retail and leisure giant Majid Al-Futtaim and one of the fastest growing in the region, operating 149 cinema screens in Saudi Arabia alone.
Mohamed Al-Hashemi, country head of Majid Al-Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment, Cinemas and Lifestyle in Saudi Arabia, said: “Since the beginning, we have differentiated ourselves from our competitors with our holistic approach.
“VOX Cinemas is a leisure and entertainment concept that seamlessly integrates state-of-the-art cinema, interactive attractions such as bowling and arcade games and signature food and beverage concepts into one enriched experience.”
Cinema’s return to Saudi Arabia has reinvigorated the domestic industry and inspired new festivals to showcase and celebrate it.
The industry saw theatrical box office market growth worth $238 million in 2021 — more than double the previous year’s takings of $122 million, dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The year was capped off by the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, which saw the big names of Arab cinema, Hollywood, and Bollywood grace the red carpet at Jeddah’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Balad.
There, on three big screens erected by VOX Cinemas, some 30,000 film fans enjoyed 138 films originating from 67 countries, including 48 Arab premieres and 27 Saudi films.
“Cinemas and content production offer enormous potential for economic growth,” said Al-Hashemi of Majid Al-Futtaim. “We recently announced ambitious plans to bring 25 local movies to the big screen in the next five years.
“Our goal to boost regional film production reiterates our commitment to realize the goals of Vision 2030 and is aligned with the Film Commission’s strategy to establish the Kingdom as a world-class film hub.”
MAKKAH: Several teams of experts have been deployed to provide services for pilgrims at the Grand Mosque including maintaining the Kaaba’s Black Stone, cleaning prayer areas, ensuring guidance information and proper translations, and establishing security and crowd control.
This is according to Dr. Saad bin Mohammed Al-Muhaimid, the under-secretary-general for the affairs of the Grand Mosque, who told Arab News that the presidency was working jointly with several government bodies to prepare for the influx of Umrah pilgrims.
On the upkeep of the Black Stone, he told Arab News: “The maintenance work is carried out by a professional specialist technical team, using modern advanced methods.” He said they have been able to complete all their work within “record time” while taking into account precautionary measures.
Al-Muhaimid said that the preparations have included ensuring that officials can manage pilgrims entering and leaving the Grand Mosque, and ease their circumambulation around the Kaaba.
Among the services provided include moveable shelves designated for Qur’ans translated into Braille and several languages. A total of 95,473 Qur’ans have been available in various areas inside the Grand Mosque.
Among the services provided include moveable shelves designated for Qur’ans translated into Braille and several languages. A total of 95,473 Qur’ans have been available in various areas inside the Grand Mosque. Al-Muhaimid explained that given the importance of performing the Umrah rituals, such as the circumambulation, as stipulated by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), more than 40 mutawwifs are at the service of pilgrims. These guides are ready to accompany pilgrims throughout their pilgrimage and provide expert advice.
The Grand Mosque’s guides also provide answers to questions in several languages. There are also seven sites inside the mosque and four offices where pilgrims can use telephones throughout the day to ask questions of 32 sheikhs, several judges and university scholars.
In the wake of the government lifting its precautionary measures, 500 security personnel will remain on duty inside and outside the mosque to ensure the safety of pilgrims and visitors.
Al-Muhaimid said that the Grand Mosque’s mukabariyah has been equipped, sanitized, scented and furnished with 15,000 carpets. There are also ongoing operations to clean, disinfect and sanitize the entire mosque 10 times a day, with the help of over 4,000 male and female workers, 80,000 liters of disinfectant, and 1,700 liters per day of the finest scents through 100 scent diffusers. This maintenance is also provided for the King Fahd Expansion and its pathways.
As part of its goal to spread Islamic messages from the Two Holy Mosques to visitors and Muslims around the world, Al-Muhaimid said the authority operates radio broadcasts 24 hours a day in 10 approved international languages through its Manarat Al-Haramain platform.
AMMAN: Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, supervisor general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, on Saturday launched a project caring for Syrian orphans in Jordan.
Al-Rabeeah distributed school bags and gifts to orphaned students in Irbid province, as well as 22 electric chairs to Syrians with disabilities.
He expressed his happiness at launching the project in Jordan to improve people’s lives, providing them with psychological support and fostering social solidarity and economic security.
Al-Rabeeah said Saudi Arabia will spare no effort in helping the needy and victims of war, especially orphans, stressing the center’s keenness to provide integrated care to orphans by providing them with healthcare and ensuring their access to educational services and integration into society.
The project will benefit 191 orphans and widows of 56 families, including 40 Syrian families and 16 Jordanian families in Irbid province.
This project is part of many carried out through KSrelief to protect orphans, improve their living conditions and alleviate their suffering.
Meanwhile, Al-Rabeeah met with the director general and CEO of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation, Dr. Nisreen Qatamesh, and tackled topics of mutual interest related to humanitarian and relief affairs.
Both parties also discussed means of strengthening cooperation to provide treatment for cancer patients, which would contribute to saving lives and providing the best medical care.
Qatamesh expressed her sincere thanks and appreciation to Saudi Arabia for its generous financial support for the foundation.
NEVADA: The commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, Lt. Gen. Turki bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, recently visited the air force team participating in the Red Flag 2022 exercise at the Nellis Air Force Base in the US.
The commander and his accompanying delegation were received by Lt. Col. Talal bin Abdulaziz bin Bandar, the commander of the Saudi air force team participating in the drill, and other staff members.
At the venue, Lt. Gen. Turki was briefed on the progress of operations in the 10-day drill.
He also visited the aircraft maintenance headquarters and met with the technical crews, lauding the high combat capabilities and skills that the Saudi air force team has acquired and urging them to take more advantage of this opportunity.
The Saudi team — air, technical and support crew — are participating with six modern combat F-15SE aircraft.
This is the eighth time the Royal Saudi Air Force is participating in this simulated exercise to study and counter advanced cyber-based threats and hostile air and ground forces.
Lt. Col. Talal said the drill has the aim of exchanging military and technical expertise between the participating forces in real scenarios, in addition to simulating international modern threats.