Saudi Arabia is a land of contrasts. Thanks to the boon of its oil, it was able to develop into a fairly advanced and economically progressive nation, yet it remains socially repressive in certain aspects. Gender-segregated entryways and facilities notwithstanding, women are also not allowed to drive, and ever since the 1980s public movie theaters were banned in the country. Thus it would seem incongruous for Saudi Arabia to eventually become host to a major (Western) pop culture event like Comic Con. This multi-venue extravaganza has gone far since its humble beginnings in San Diego, and at first seemed an ill fit for holding in the Middle East until the UAE took the first step in 2012 with a Comic Con in Dubai.

Just this February however, Saudi Arabia has taken the plunged and hosted its own Comic-Con event for the first time.

A new convention in the Middle East

From February 16 to 18, the city of Jeddah became the place to go for Saudis looking to bask in and celebrate pop culture and comic books, both local and western, along with film and video games with the optional choice of dressing up as their favorite superheroes and other fictional characters. This Saudi Comic Con (SCC) is the joint effort of the Saudi Arabian government and local firm Time Entertainment, which was the primary visionary of the event. Both sides have their own ideas as to what the success of SCC could entail.

The government sees the SCC as a stepping stone towards Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2020” economic diversity program, which seeks to initiate a series of cultural reforms (like the use of the western calendar for business) that would diversify the country’s economy to move away from its decades-long over-dependence on their finite oil supply.

Time Entertainment’s director Hisham al-Saeed believes that opening a local venue for the International Comic-Con event would make for the most prestigious opportunity to show off homegrown Saudi comic art and animation talent; this is coming from his own observation of Saudi pop culture fanatics holding their own private and underground cosplay contests prior.

Support and criticism

Judging from the turnout of the 3-day event, it would seem that the Saudi Comic Con found plenty of support and revenue success. Cosplay competitions, video game tournaments, culture exhibits and comic booths were aplenty, and there was star power as well with actors from hit TV series like “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” and “Hannibal” appearing as guest speakers.

But Saudi Arabia isn’t a bastion of a tradition for nothing, with conservative voices decrying the SCC as a “devil-worshipping” abomination incompatible with a devout and traditional way of life. Hopefully, the government support will stick around for more events in the future, in line with their new vision.