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Saudi Arabia pledges billions to boost quality of life

To ensure political stability, Saudi Arabia will spend $13bn by 2020 to promote entertainment, health, sports and education
Female Saudi supporters of Al-Ahli attend their team's football match at King Abdullah Sports City (AFP)

Saudi Arabia plans to spend about $13bn by 2020 on an initiative to promote entertainment, health, sports and education as part of a modernising drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At an event in Riyadh on Thursday, Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said the programme, called Quality of Life, should generate 300,000 jobs in the next two years.

"The initiatives will cost a total of 50 billion riyals ($13.33bn), and government spending will be around 60 percent, with 40 percent from the private sector," Khatib told Reuters.

"The entire benefit from this big spending will be for the private sector, and this supports the 2030 Vision that strengthens the role of the private sector."

Khatib listed a water park, three theme parks, museums and more cinemas as projects in the initiative, which is itself part of a National Transformation Plan that includes hundreds of steps to modernise the economy and society by 2020.

Retired French footballer Thierry Henry, American actress Katie Holmes and British actor Idris Elba attended the event to promote the initiative and Saudi Arabia's image to an international audience.

Saudi female fencer Lubna al-Omair told the crowd she enjoyed riding her bike and going to museums when she studied abroad.

"One of the things I was worried I would lose (when I moved back home) was the sport I had gotten attached to and that had become a part of me," she said, adding that now she could practice fencing.

Saudi Arabia has undergone many changes in recent months, holding concerts and opening cinemas. The moves in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom are being hailed as proof of progress spearheaded by bin Salman, who has appealed to the young since his ascendance to power.

The kingdom’s strict social customs and rapid development created a nation in which community is highly valued but opportunities for public gathering are scarce.

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Saudi citizens have no vote and dwindling oil-generated income means economic horizons may contract in the coming years. As a result, improving the quality of life is seen as important for ensuring political stability, observers say.

In addition, money has been leaving the country at an exponential rate, according to a recent Middle East Eye report.

New research shows that billions of dollars of capital leave the kingdom each year - from 2012 up to and including last year. Next year the country is expected to go through the same, according the March-dated report from the Washington, DC-based Institute of International Finance.

International watchdogs have urged the kingdom to improve its treatment of human rights advocates, stop executions and cancel its pervasive system of male guardianship.