FILE- In this Oct. 24, 2017 file photo, released by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at the Future Investment Initiative Conference, where he promised to return the ultraconservative kingdom to a more "moderate" Islam, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Salman sacked the head of the country’s entertainment authority late Monday, June 18, 2018, after religiously-conservative citizens took to social media to denounce a Russian circus show that showed female performers in tightly-fitted attire. (Saudi Press Agency via AP, File)

Saudi entertainment chief sacked after conservative backlash

June 19, 2018 - 7:30 am
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi King Salman sacked the head of the country's entertainment authority after religiously conservative citizens took to social media to denounce a Russian circus show that included female performers in tightly-fitted attire, semi-official media reported Tuesday.

The king issued the royal decree relieving Ahmed al-Khatib of his post as head of the General Entertainment Authority late Monday. Semi-official newspaper Sabq reported Tuesday he was fired because of public backlash over the Russian circus, which was performed in the capital, Riyadh.

An Arabic hashtag on Twitter that translates into "Naked Russian Women in Riyadh" was trending in Saudi Arabia with comments by people upset with the appearance of the Russian female performers, including a trapeze artist, in body hugging leotards during the show.

The circus, which was scheduled to run for five days until June 19, is meant to coincide with the presence of the Saudi national team at the World Cup in Russia, according to the entertainment authority's ticketing website. It was not immediately clear if the remaining shows in Riyadh had been canceled or altered.

A video on YouTube, viewed nearly 300,000 times since it was posted on Saturday, shows a number of Saudi citizens speaking out against liberal reforms that they say contradict the teachings of Islam. 

Earlier this year, Saudi sports officials apologized after images of scantily clad women appeared on big screens during a WWE wrestling event, which hosted women and children in the audience for the first time.

The incidents reflect some of the challenges the Saudi leadership faces as 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushes through reforms to increase household spending and curtail conservative influence.

The entertainment authority was formed only two years ago as the kingdom began allowing musical concerts again after a 20-year-long ban. The first commercial cinema opened in April after more than three decades.

Among the most significant reforms reshaping the kingdom is a decision that will allow women the right to drive on June 24, making Saudi Arabia the last country in the world to lift a ban on women driving.

Still, the kingdom — home to two of Islam's holiest sites — remains a deeply conservative society. Saudi Arabia requires that women don long, loose flowing robes known as abayas in public and around unrelated men. Most Saudi women also cover their hair and face in black veils.

There have been exceptions to the rules, however. High-level female visitors and dignitaries, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. First Lady Melania Trump, have not been required to cover their hair nor wear abayas during visits to Saudi Arabia.

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