Cirque du Soleil Saudi Show Will Go On, Despite Spat With Canada

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia’s spat with Canada may have affected the currency, maple syrup imports and thousands of Saudi students abroad, but there’s at least one Canadian business untouched: Cirque du Soleil.

The Montreal-based troupe will perform a customized show for Saudi Arabia’s National Day on September 23 in Riyadh, Cirque du Soleil said in an emailed statement. The hour-long show will feature more than 80 artists -- men and women -- wearing 250 costumes on a 300-foot stage, "making it one of the largest productions ever created for a single performance by Cirque du Soleil," the company said.

Cirque du Soleil Saudi Show Will Go On, Despite Spat With Canada

It will be the first time Cirque du Soleil performs in Saudi Arabia. Under 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the conservative Islamic kingdom has been loosening social restrictions and expanding its once-anemic entertainment industry -- all part of his economic transformation plan called "Vision 2030." At the same time, the prince has led a political crackdown on domestic critics and a more aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy, including the kingdom’s split with Canada last month.

The relationship deteriorated after a tweet from Canada’s foreign ministry called for the "immediate release" of detained activists in Saudi Arabia. The government in Riyadh reacted swiftly to what it perceived as interference in its internal affairs, recalling its ambassador, banning the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh, freezing new business deals and suspending flights to Toronto.

Saudi Arabia also ordered the sale of Canadian assets and the return of Saudi students who were on scholarships at Canadian universities. So far, the spat has not been known to affect Canadian companies with existing business in Saudi Arabia.

The agreement for Cirque du Soleil to perform for Saudi National Day was announced in April, when Prince Mohammed was touring the U.S. to promote investment in the kingdom. The performance will be held at King Fahd International Stadium in front of a mixed gender audience, and will also be televised, Cirque du Soleil said. Costumes have been specially designed to maintain respect for local traditions, so that they "meet both the expectations of Saudis and our own artistic standards," the company said.

Women in Saudi Arabia must wear long figure-concealing cloaks in public. The vast majority cover their hair as well, and the face-covering niqab is common. Foreign female performers brought to Riyadh over the past couple of years have worn a variety of skin-covering costumes, some more revealing than others.

After a circus performance earlier this year led to a backlash on social media over the artists’ tight clothing, the chairman of the government’s General Entertainment Authority, Ahmed Al-Khatib, was removed from his position.

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