RIYADH: A Yemeni man stabbed three actors at a musical performance in the Saudi capital, police said on Tuesday, in the first such attack since the ultra-conservative kingdom began easing decades-old restrictions on entertainment.

The knife-wielding assailant was arrested after state television footage showed him storming a musical performance in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Park by what appeared to be a foreign theatre troupe.

Police said the victims were in stable condition after the attack late Monday, which comes as de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues sweeping reforms that mark the biggest cultural shakeup in the kingdom’s history.

“Security forces dealt with a... stabbing attack against two men and a woman from a theatre group during a live performance,” a police spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Police identified the assailant as a 33-year-old Yemeni expatriate but did not give details of his motive or the nationality of his victims.

The King Abdullah Park is one of the venues hosting the two-month “Riyadh Season”, an arts and entertainment festival that is part of a broad government push to open up the kingdom to tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.

Prince Mohammed has introduced mixed-gender concerts, re-opened cinemas and lifted a decades-old ban on women drivers as part of a drive to modernise the Muslim kingdom.

In scenes that were unimaginable just two years ago, Saudi Arabia has staged glitzy performances by a host of international artists, from South Korean boy band BTS to pop icon Janet Jackson and rapper 50 Cent.

Last month, the kingdom hosted its first ever women’s wrestling match as it attempts to shrug off its ultra-conservative image.

The knife attack has left many Saudis shocked, with some on social media denouncing it as an act of “terrorism”.

“Every instigator against entertainment is a partner in this extremist act,” one Twitter user said.

Saudi officials warn that introducing such wide-ranging reforms in a society steeped in conservatism is fraught with peril.

While they are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia’s mainly young population, the reforms risk angering arch-conservatives, including hardline clerics and the religious police whose powers have been clipped in recent years.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2019