Saudi Arabia Held First Comic-Con
By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
People in the U.S. have been attending comic book conventions for years, all over the country. The international convention in San Diego each year hosts around 150,000 people. Much of the world has been on board with celebrating their love of pop culture for quite some time. Finally, Saudi Arabia has jumped onto the convention wagon in an unconventional and unexpected move!
Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most gender-segregated countries in the world. For example, women aren’t allowed to drive and aren’t allowed to be in public without a male guardian escorting them. The country also doesn’t allow public movie theaters. But in a surprise twist, the world of pop culture, movies, television, and comics is helping to start the slow process of changing cultural (and gender) norms within the kingdom!
Last weekend, a local Saudi company, Time Entertainment, put on a 3 day long convention (February 16-18) in Jeddah. Endorsed (and partially financed) by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, the coastal city was host to 20,000 people attending the first comic book convention in Saudi Arabia. While there were protests from traditionalists, calling the event “devil worshipping,” the Saudi government chose to get behind the convention in an effort to initiate cultural reforms and to diversify the economy of the country (in an effort to pull away from oil dependency). This plays a role in the Saudi “Vision 2030” plan.
The convention still followed some strict guidelines set in place by the government. Attendees were not allowed to cross-dress in their cosplay or display any insignia or iconography that would contradict the Islamic religion. If women chose to wear costumes, they could display them in a female-only tent that was set up to allow them to remove their traditional clothing and show off their costumes to other women. In addition, there were separate entrances into the event for males and females.
That may not sound like loads of fun to someone accustomed to Western culture. However, the event was actually a monumental deviation from the cultural norms of Saudi Arabia. In a country where most public spaces are segregated, attendees were allowed to mix and mingle freely once inside the event! One attendee, Fatima Mohammed Hussein, told CNN, “I couldn’t believe this is happening here. It’s a big more for Saudi to have something like that!” Another attendee reported, “You’re free here!”
The event included pop art booths, video game competitions, and panel discussions. There were panels with some western culture celebs such as Charles Dance and Julian Glover (from Game of Thrones), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, Once Upon a Time), and Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Doctor Strange, Star Wars). There were also panels with Saudi producers and actors, including a panel with the cast of an upcoming Saudi superhero show called Mas’hour (which means Bewitched in English).
To catch a more thorough look of the Saudi convention experience from costume hunting to actual attendance, you can watch a video posted by Abdul Rahman Bakhsh, a 25 year old YouTuber at https://youtu.be/5P7Zg0fcDfc. You may not understand a word anyone is saying, but it’s absolutely worth the watch to see the excitement for the convention that transcends any language barrier! You can also check out the Saudi Comic Con Youtube channel for more videos! (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCL3yDvXhtwEvjvD-n5H_xXQ)
Time Entertainment considered the event a resounding success and has high hopes to make the comic book convention an annual event that will get bigger and better each year! It looks like nerds uniting to share their obsessions and interests just might what the world needs to evolve into a better and more accepting place for everyone!