Saudi Arabia hosts first concert by female performer in country's history

Image: Hiba Tawaji Concert
Women arrive at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday to attend a concert by Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji.Haya Al-Suwayed / AFP - Getty Images

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By Lubna Hussain and Saphora Smith

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Thousands of young women cheered and rose in a standing ovation at the first public concert performed by a female singer in Saudi Arabia.

Some took off their abayas — the loose-fitting, full-length robes local women are required to wear in public — allowing their hair to hang loose.

Others danced to renditions of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion tunes as well as Arab classics. Many of the well-heeled young women held up their smartphones to film the spectacle.

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“This is a very proud moment for Saudi Arabia,” the master of ceremonies said while welcoming Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji to the stage. “All women should express their appreciation for a fact that a woman for the first time is performing at a concert in Saudi Arabia.”

Wednesday's event is the latest example of how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms are changing life for Saudis.

The 31-year-old has been trying to shake up the ultra-conservative society as well as diversifying its economy, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

No public concerts have traditionally been allowed to take place in the kingdom, with many Saudis traveling to other Gulf States to see musicians perform live.

In recent weeks the government has also allowed several public concerts to be held, including mixed-sex gigs featuring Greek composer and keyboardist Yanni.

"Personally I hope there will be more [concerts] and I am enthusiastic about this and we deserve to have more musical events," said Al Anoud, a Riyadh resident who attended Tawaji's performance.

Saudi Arabia is consistently ranked as one of the worst countries for gender equality in the world.

"It's good to recognize women's existence," a university student who only identified herself as Salma said. "If women and their forms of entertainment have been recognized, then we will reach very important levels in life."

Lubna Hussain reported from Riyadh. Saphora Smith reported from London.