Lebanese singer dazzles Riyadh in first women-only concert

RIYADH: Applause and shrieks of joy erupted as Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji dazzled Riyadh in its first female-only music concert, as Saudi Arabia seeks to ease social restrictions on women.

Tawaji performed to a packed audience at the cavernous King Fahd Cultural Centre late Wednesday, the latest in a series of concerts by international artists as the austere kingdom seeks to boost entertainment options.

"I came especially from Jizan to watch this concert," said Nafees Awad, a university student from the southern province, more than 950km from Riyadh.

"We are so happy to watch such a concert, it's the first time" in Riyadh, she added.

The concert highlights how the kingdom is easing some of its tight restrictions on women.

Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member — normally the father, husband or brother — must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

But under a new reform, women will be allowed to drive for the first time from next June. The kingdom will also allow women into sports stadiums for the first time from next year.

"It's good that women's existence is being recognised," Salma, a university student, told AFP at the concert.

Saudi Arabia in recent months has organised concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration that saw people dancing in the streets to thumping electronic music for the first time.

Legendary Greek composer and pianist Yanni performed to a packed mixed-gender audience in Riyadh last week, accompanied by female vocalists.

The social reform, part of Prince Mohammed bin Salman's "Vision 2030" programme for a post-oil era, stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an energy slump.

Saudis splurge billions of dollars annually to see movie shows and visit amusement parks in the neighbouring tourist hubs of Bahrain and Dubai. — AFP