A once underground voice is now being openly celebrated by all
“The minute I stepped in, I couldn’t believe this is happening here,” Fatima Mohammed Hussein, who came dressed as Batwoman, told CNN. “It’s a big move for Saudi to have something like that.” Hussein is one of thousands of Saudis who flocked to the coastal city of Jeddah for a three-day Comic Con event to celebrate pop culture, comic books, video games, and movies. The festival was part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia, which bans public cinemas and theater.
“When you enter into the tent, you forget that you are in Saudi Arabia,” said Abdul Rahman Bakhsh, who is an engineer and avid YouTuber. He and his friend Ameer documented their Comic Con experience on their YouTube channel, starting with finding what to wear at such a awesomely nerdy event.
“There is a lot of creativity in Comic Con. People really interacted with the event and their costumes were amazing,” Bakhsh said.
Saudi Comic Con is not only a place where people can gather to celebrate their love of all things nerdy, but it’s also where men and women can mingle and share that love. It’s quite remarkable that this is a government-sponsored event in a country that imposes gender segregation in public spaces. The entrances are segregated, yes. And there was a separate female-only tent where women could take off their traditional abayas and show off their costumes in all their glory. But that’s as far as the separation of sexes went.
Saudis also had the opportunity to attend panel discussions with big-named celebrities such as Charles Dance and Julian Glover from Game of Thrones, Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad, and Mads Mikkelsen from Rogue One and Doctor Strange.
Saudi Comic Con was organized by a local company, Time Entertainment. Its public relations manager Hisham AlSaeed said that Comic Con’s international presence gave Saudi Arabia the perfect opportunity to highlight homegrown talent. “There’s a lot of talent [here] when it comes to comics, animations, anime [and] movie production,” he said. AlSaeed went on to say that the initiative was inspired by a rise in people holding their own cosplay competitions at small, underground and private events.
Of course, setting up such an event in a country as strict Saudi Arabia wasn’t without its challenges. The planning of the event took over a year after a compromise was made. Comic Con was allowed to keep it’s eclectic spirit alive as along as it mostly adhered to the country’s religious regulations. That meant no indecent symbols or logos that went against Islamic teachers, and attendees were not allowed to cross-dress. Even then there was a disapproving uproar amongst the more traditional citizens of Saudi Arabia, condemning the allowing of a Western phenomenon into a “traditional Islamic kingdom.” There was even a hashtag that called Saudi Comic Con a “devil worshipping” event and called to boycott it.
Saudi Comic Con was supported by Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority as part of their “Vision 2030” program, which is a wave of cultural reforms that is meant to diversify the country’s oil-dependent economy. Hopefully, Comic Con will be allowed to continue as an annual event.
“We’re considering this a soft Comic Con in Saudi Arabia,” AlSaeed told CNN, who plans on making the event even bigger next time around. “I’m hoping by next year we have a full cast of The Walking Dead, but we also have a lot of casts of our own movies and TV shows,” he said.
Congratulations, nerds of Saudi Arabia, and good luck!