A Saudi court has sentenced a Yemeni man to death for a knife attack on a Spanish theatre group, state television reported on Sunday, amid a controversial push to ease decades-old restrictions on entertainment.
The court also sentenced an accomplice to 12 and a half years in jail for the November 11 attack during a live performance in Riyadh, which state media linked to al-Qaeda, and which Madrid said left four performers wounded.
“The criminal court issues a preliminary ruling handing the death sentence to the perpetrator of the terrorist attack … in Riyadh,” the state-owned Al-Ekhbariya news channel reported on Sunday.
The assailant, identified by Saudi police as a 33-year-old Yemeni resident of Saudi Arabia, went on a stabbing spree during a musical in the capital’s King Abdullah Park, one of the venues hosting the two-month “Riyadh Season” entertainment festival.
It was the first such assault since the ultra-conservative kingdom began easing restrictions on entertainment.
Last week, Al-Ekhbariya said the attacker took orders from an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, but so far there has been no claim of responsibility from the group.
Al-Ekhbariya did not offer any details on his alleged accomplice.
Saudi Arabia is leading a military coalition supporting the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels and has also been involved in the fight against al-Qaeda.
Some observers also point at burbling resentment among archconservatives in the kingdom over the government’s multibillion-dollar entertainment push as it seeks to lure foreign tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has pursued sweeping social reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in the kingdom’s modern history, allowing mixed-gender concerts and the reopening of cinemas.
Reforms risk angering hardliners
Although the reforms are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia’s mainly young population, they risk angering religious conservatives. Earlier this year, campaigners reported the arrest of religious scholar Omar al-Muqbil after he criticised the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) for “erasing Saudi society’s original identity”.
The reforms come as the largest petroleum exporter, hit hard by low oil prices, seeks to boost domestic spending and diversify its economy. Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai and Bahrain.
Critics say loosening social strictures is a diversionary tactic to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and an intensifying crackdown on dissent.
The kingdom has also faced intense international scrutiny over its human rights record since last year’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
And nearly a dozen women’s rights activists were arrested for demanding the right to drive, just weeks before the kingdom lifted the ban on female motorists last year.
In July, US rapper Nicki Minaj pulled out of a concert in Saudi Arabia in what she described as a show of support for women’s and gay rights in the kingdom.