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La culture pop dans la péninsule Arabique

Making Moves: Reading Saudi Social Change through Commercial Tabletop Games

Andrew Leber

Résumés

La promotion de l’industrie du divertissement est devenue une pierre angulaire des changements politiques en Arabie saoudite, concentrant l’attention de la majorité des médias et des universitaires sur les évènements culturels à grande échelle qui reflètent les efforts top‑down de l’État saoudien pour amorcer des changements économiques et sociaux dans le royaume. Dans cet article, je prends pour objet une production culturelle à petite échelle – l’industrie naissante de jeux de société saoudiens – afin de comprendre comment les entrepreneurs saoudiens mobilisent, adaptent, ou contestent subtilement les discours étatiques pour faire émerger des projets permettant développement personnel, réforme sociale et par‑dessus tout, une activité commerciale. M’appuyant sur des entretiens avec plusieurs entrepreneurs du secteur du jeu de société et l’analyse de jeux récents produits en Arabie saoudite, je démontre que ces jeux s’appuient sur une forme d’authenticité nationale pour attirer les consommateurs – « Achetez saoudien ! » – et pour offrir une expérience ludique immersive. Cependant, les mondes construits par ces jeux à la thématique saoudienne révèlent à leur tour que les inégalités de richesse et d’influence sociale préexistantes conditionnent fortement les opportunités individuelles dans la vie réelle, et cela bien que les développeurs eux‑mêmes promeuvent l’autonomie tant mise en exergue dans le discours étatique actuel. Enfin, alors que les entrepreneurs de ce secteur imitent leurs homologues étrangers en mettant en valeur le caractère artisanal et les vertus sociales des jeux de société, ce discours reste légèrement en décalage avec le futurisme d’État qui promeut l’importance de la construction d’un avenir technologique et numérique pour la société saoudienne.

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Introduction

1“Entertainment” has been a major focus of economic and social reforms promoted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the past few years. Under the combined aegis of the “National Transformation Plan” and “Vision 2030” strategy documents, Saudi leaders and state officials have framed efforts to provide and promote new sources of entertainment as breaking with a long, “erroneous” proscription of many popular pastimes – a proscription that long served as a means of appeasing conservative clerics to secure their support for the Saudi monarchy.

  • 1 Wynn, 2007, p. 169‑199.

2State investments in public entertainment spectacles – from the licensing of commercial movie theaters on up to bringing Western circuses on tour – serve a range of purposes. For international audiences, these spectacles project an image of the Kingdom as the site of “normal” (and, in many ways, Western) consumerism, attesting to the sincerity of ongoing social reforms. They provide an outlet for citizens’ energies separate from austere forms of religious devotion, potentially distracting Saudis from faltering growth in individual material wealth. An expanded entertainment sector likewise holds out the promise of diversifying an oil‑based economy (and finding gainful employment for thousands of young Saudis) by encouraging citizens to spend on entertainment within the Kingdom rather than seeking forms of relaxation abroad.1

3However, the style and scale of “entertainment” promoted by Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA, est. 2016) can obscure smaller‑scale entertainment outlets developed by Saudis, for Saudis. The cultural output of Saudi Trifeca, a small board‑game developer, pales in comparison to the billions of dollars the GEA has spent on a series of mass spectacles in cities across the Kingdom, including concerts by Western and Arab singers, a “winter wonderland” outdoor festival in Riyadh, and monster truck rallies. The GEA’s events receive extensive media coverage within Saudi Arabia and internationally; by contrast, even within Saudi Arabia you might never hear of Saudi Trifecta unless you happened upon their colorful, elegantly designed game boxes in a branch of the Kingdom’s Jarir Bookstore chain or a similar outlet elsewhere in the Gulf.

  • 2 Ménoret & Samin, 2013; Ménoret, 2011, p. 170‑171.
  • 3 Ménoret, 2011, p. 171‑172.
  • 4 Ennis, 2015, p. 120‑124.

4In this article, I focus on the development of contemporary Saudi tabletop games – any game played on a table or flat surface, whether with cards, dice, game‑boards, or other physical features. Despite their marginal economic role, these individuals and the gaming experiences they facilitate offer meaningful insights into contemporary Saudi society, as they seek to market new leisure activities to mass Saudi audiences while functioning at a distance from overtly state‑backed entertainment. Unlike some forms of popular culture within the Kingdom, such as kasrāt songs offering sharp critiques of Saudi society,2 or videos of joyriding that celebrate the defiance of authority,3 commercial tabletop games are neither intended to nor are understood as carrying an explicit political message. At the same time, entrepreneurs espouse many of the ideals of individual initiative and risk‑taking lauded in official strategy documents across the Arabian Peninsula as a means of diversifying oil‑reliant economies and employing citizens.4

5In discussing why and how they seek to connect with Saudi audiences through tabletop games, however, these entrepreneurs shed light on potential sources of popular appeal for present Saudi reforms, as well as potential limits to these appeals. In line with official rhetoric, many entrepreneurs strongly emphasize national identity in their production of Saudi games for Saudi audiences, assuming a demand on the part of consumers for “authentic” products rooted in Saudi heritage or contemporary Saudi social experiences. Yet while game developers echo official discourses of personal responsibility as integral to economic success, their representation of the Kingdom within various “gameworlds” suggests inequalities of wealth and influence that would be difficult for any individual initiative to overcome. Finally, in a subtle contrast to state officials’ emphasis on reforms as transforming society in pursuit of a hi‑tech future, developers emphasize tabletop games’ low‑tech, “natural” community‑building properties (compared with the supposed artificiality of online interactions through smartphone apps and electronic gaming) as empowering consumers to reinforce the Saudi social fabric from below. In sum, while analyzing the world of Saudi tabletop games underscores the power of nationalism as an animating force for present reforms, this analysis also points to popular concerns that rapid change undermines existing sources of social cohesion while doing little to alter entrenched social inequalities.

Big Entertainment for Fun and Profit

6Given the potential scale of socio‑cultural changes underway in Saudi Arabia – not just in the past few years but the past two decades – analysis of something as seemingly marginal as commercial board games can seem out of place. Even tabletop games, however, have been implicated in recent, state‑led efforts to emphasize the Kingdom’s national (rather than religious) identity and promote Western forms of popular entertainment.

  • 5 Khalaf, 2000; Cooke, 2014, p. 101‑108.
  • 6 Hammond, 2012, p. 44‑65.
  • 7 Black, 2013.

7To some extent, all states in the Arabian Peninsula have celebrated older forms of entertainment and commerce, such as camel racing or pearl diving, in an effort to root a longstanding national identity in “invented traditions” of the past.5 Even in Saudi Arabia, where state emphasis on the country’s Islamic character has tended to push “secular” nationalisms to the margins, elements of “traditional” culture – horse riding, falcon hunting, camel racing – have at least been tolerated as a nod to rulers’ political support from various tribal confederations.6 The annual Janadriyah cultural festival, held for two weeks every January at an exhibition grounds north of Riyadh, highlights traditional crafts, games, and performances from each of the Kingdom’s thirteen regions further aims “to enforce a sense of religious, national and social unity.”7

  • 8 Mouline, 2014, p. 203‑234.
  • 9 For an argument that these artists play a more expansive role in shaping and narrative Saudi popula (...)

8Yet the Saudi monarchy – historically reliant on conservative clerics as a key source of legitimation – long suppressed forms of popular entertainment widely promoted elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, including international sporting events; major, Western‑style music concerts; and even cinemas. While the power of the Saudi clerical establishment has waxed and waned over the years, rulers have consistently catered to their preferences on matters of public entertainment and gender segregation.8 While a small, citizen‑led visual arts movement established itself from the 1980s onward, this entailed considerable protection by influential patrons within the ruling family and the business elite, with art shows either hidden away in private galleries or held abroad.9

  • 10 Obaid, 2019.
  • 11 Interview with female game developer L., November 5, 2018. I have elected to use only first initial (...)

9Notably, even Saudi Arabia’s most popular indigenous tabletop game – bilūt – was effectively suppressed from public discussion during this time. In bilūt, two teams of two players compete to collect various combinations of playing cards. Said to have been brought to the Hijaz region by Indian immigrants early in the 20th century (as a variation on the French game Belote), it gained widespread popularity across much of the Arabian Peninsula in subsequent decades.10 The game is also a decidedly male pastime, as noted by several female game developers.11

  • 12 Mullin, 2009, p. 989.
  • 13 Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta, Saudi Arabia, Fatwā 4338, November 17, 1981, h (...)
  • 14 Al‑Mushayqaḥ, 2000.

10In Saudi Arabia, however, clerics associated card playing of any kind with idleness and immoral behavior, not unlike the past association of card games with “danger and dissipation” in Europe and North America.12 A 1981 fatwa by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta made it clear that “Playing with cards is not allowed even if there is no monetary compensation, as the matter distracts from the remembrance of Allāh and from prayer, even if it is claimed that it does not prevent [someone] from doing so.”13 A cleric based in the conservative city of Buraidah subsequently expounded on this point in an extensive research paper that documented numerous reasons for rejecting the game: the fact that Western playing cards utilize the ”symbols and rituals of Christians,” the fact that the game originated among the “infidels” of either China or India, and that games were often an incitement to gambling or trading insults.14

  • 15 Bādī, 2004.
  • 16 The episode depicts a game of bilūt that transforms into a fantastical world inhabited by playing c (...)
  • 17 Malāk, 2010.
  • 18 Al‑Bāḥiṣ, 2013.

11The popularity of bilūt despite these injunctions reflected the underground nature of much non‑religious popular culture within Saudi Arabia from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. In 2004 the game was “considered by Saudis… to be the most popular game in the country” even as it was “considered by some to be a vice, or haram.”15 Official discussion of the game – outside of efforts to criticize it – was confined to sanctioned outlets for more freeform popular expression such as the satirical television show Ṭāsh mā ṭāsh.16 In 2010, the head of the Kingdom’s religious police disparaged the game as “an undesirable habit that sucks up time for no clear purpose… rivalries and disputes often result from bilūt sessions.”17 There was little in the way of state patronage for the popular pastime; as late as 2013, the promotion of bilūt largely came down to a lone enthusiast, Fāliḥ al‑Subay‘ī, who sought to unify or at least codify the many variations of game rules across the Kingdom, though in subsequent years a few local governments began organizing unofficial, small‑scale tournaments.18

  • 19 See interview with Al‑Arian, 2018; See also Le Renard, 2014, pp. 3‑4.
  • 20 A 2014 article in the Saudi Gazette still described bilūt fans as seeking “official” recognition fo (...)

12This began to change under the aegis of the Kingdom’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, a loose but wide‑ranging set of efforts to re‑engineer the Kingdom’s economy and society and a vehicle for the rise to prominence and power of present‑day Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. To be sure, Saudi rulers and Western observers have promoted narratives of the Kingdom’s “reforms” for much of the Kingdom’s recent history – Abdullah Al‑Arian documents 70 years of these tropes using New York Times headlines alone.19 Yet the inauguration of the General Entertainment Authority in 2016, by a royal decree from King Salmān bin ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz but with the backing of the Crown Prince, marked a clear change in the Saudi state’s orientation towards public forms of entertainment – and particularly performances by Western artists and entertainers. By 2018, the General Sports Authority (then headed by close Mohammed bin Salman confidante Turki al‑Sheikh) began organizing “the first official tournament in the country” for bilūt, with substantial prize purses for winners.20

13This focus on new forms of public entertainment and state‑backed “fun” works to achieve several aims for Saudi Arabia’s leadership. Internationally, it plays into a diplomatic strategy to shift the Kingdom’s image from a deeply conservative land, hostile to Western commercial and social values, to a country marked by an open, even cosmopolitan society that welcomes foreign visitors and (more importantly) foreign capital for economic investments. Domestically, it signals that the state officials will no longer prioritize the preferences of religious clerics and more conservative segments of Saudi society, but will instead appeal to Saudi citizens who prefer a modicum of social liberties.

  • 21 “Saudi gamers get together at kingdom's first‑ever Comic Con,” Reuters, February 19, 2013, [https:/ (...)
  • 22 Hubbard, 2018.
  • 23 Chokshi, 2017.

14For a time, these policies succeeded in garnering a degree of international attention for the “new” Saudi Arabia. The first mass event to garner much Western media coverage was the Kingdom’s first‑ever Comic Con in 2017 – a convention for fans of various forms of animation, comic books, graphic novels and video games. The Comic Con afforded international correspondents the opportunity to draw a clear contrast between the Kingdom’s conservative, even alien reputation – “a country where the use of magic is a crime punishable by beheading,” noted Reuters – and the mixed‑gender, costumed crowds filling a tent near the Red Sea of Jeddah.21 The following year, the New York Times covered the nascent Saudi concert scene in a vibrantly photographed feature piece, noting the stark shift for “one of the world’s most conservative places, where… even the notion of fun was often frowned upon as un‑Islamic.”22 Since then, a steady progression of Western entertainers has passed through the Kingdom’s major cities – events such as pro wrestling matches, Cirque de Soleil, Formula E car racing; artists and music groups such as Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Black‑Eyed Peas, David Guetta. Even the Saudi Chess Federation has sought to organize high‑profile international events, though engagement with the global chess audiences faltered due to restrictions on participation by Israeli chess masters.23

  • 24 Paul & Maclean, 2017.

15These spectacles are not merely an exercise in “nation‑branding,” however, with Saudi officials well aware that marquee Western performers have long enjoyed widespread, if largely private, popularity among Saudi society. When rulers and elite policymakers discuss new entertainment policies, they therefor speak of catering to this hidden demand – as well as boosting the domestic economy by encouraging the consumption of entertainment at home. Aḥmad Al‑Khaṭīb, a former chairman of the GEA, initially described the entertainment strategy as catering to the “80 percent of the population” interested in travel, cinema‑going, and concerts – conservative Saudis wary of these changes could simply opt to stay at home.24

  • 25 Le Renard, 2015.
  • 26 “Full Transcript of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Al Arabiya interview”, AlArabiya, April 25, 2016, (...)

16While state policies have incentivized Saudi citizens towards globalized patterns of consumption in previous decades, the new emphasis on entertainment provides a means of raising Saudis’ quality of life even as real incomes stagnate (against the backdrop of looming fiscal constraints imposed by falling oil prices).25 In a 2016 interview with Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya, Mohammed bin Salman discussed how new entertainment outlets “allow the citizens whose incomes are low to spend money and enjoy doing so” and how this might “change the standard of living of a Saudi citizen in a short period of time.”26

  • 27 Jones, 2017, p. 1.
  • 28 Goldberg, 2018.
  • 29 Rasooldeen & Hassan, 2017.

17At the intersection of international and domestic signaling is the idea that these entertainment policies, among other social reforms, can socially engineer “citizens for globalized market eras” – politically loyal yet socially open‑minded, with a strong desire to compete in the global market economy.27 “Saudis don’t want to lose their identity but we want to be part of the global culture,” noted Mohammed bin Salman, speaking for the entire Saudi population in an interview with the Atlantic. “We want to merge our culture with global identity.”28 This “merging” has likewise been presented as part of a culture war against “extremism” within the Kingdom – an effort to portray the religious conservatism that served to legitimate the Saudi regime for decades as an alien ideology imposed from below by clerics inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran. “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” remarked Mohammed bin Salman at an investment forum in 2017.29

18As a form of popular “diversion” legible to state officials and heretofore banned from the public sphere by restrictive social policies, the game of bilūt was in a prime position to benefit from this change in policy. Arab News, the Kingdom’s main English‑language outlet, ran several features throughout the year explaining the rules and extensive heritage of the game – now highlighted as an “integral part” of Saudi culture.30 Senior cleric Sheikh ‘Ᾱdil al‑Kalbānī opened the first competition with an injunction to play honestly “and without cursing,” in a speech promoted by state media outlets and almost certainly designed to suggest clerical approval for open gaming.31 Bilūt remains the only tabletop game promoted by the Saudi Federation of Electronic and Intellectual Sports (sponsored in 2017 by the Saudi Olympic Committee, also overseen at the time by Turki al‑Sheikh), which otherwise focuses on video‑game contests and mathematics competitions.

  • 32 “Saudi entertainment chief: My Reuters interview was misunderstood,” AlArabiya, April 30, 2017, [ht (...)
  • 33 Spencer, 2018.

19These changes have not been without controversy, such as periodic disapproval by more conservative Saudis. Aḥmad Al‑Khaṭīb was forced to “clarify” to Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya that he had been “misunderstood” in framing entertainment offerings as offering Saudi citizens “99 percent of what is going on in London and New York,” assuring the Saudi public that the GEA would improve entertainment offerings “in a way that harmonizes with Saudi values that depend on the tolerant teachings of Islam.”32 Online grumbling that a Russian circus performance was obscene, due to the form‑fitting garments worn by some of the women performing, ultimately forced him to resign his post in 2018.33

20In the initial years of reform, some commentators offered carefully phrased concerns that new policies were imposed from above rather than negotiated in consultation with Saudi society. The later Saudi media figure Jamal Khashoggi, for example, wrote a series of articles in response to the release of the overarching “Vision 2030” reform plan and the related “National Transformation Plan” by offering a “Citizen’s Vision 2030,” in which the writer offered his own interpretation of policy priorities for the average Saudi citizen – including improved healthcare, better education for Saudi students, and even decent sidewalks. “Of course, [the citizen] wants everything the government promises in the ‘Plan’ and the ‘Vision’, but it is useful to listen to him as well (emphasis added).”34 ‘Iṣām Al‑Zāmil, a Saudi economist, likewise called into question the economic logic of selling off part of state‑owned company Aramco as a key part of economic diversification efforts. “The Vision’s existence is something positive, no doubt… but it is only one step… in a very difficult journey.”35

  • 36 Shihabi, 2019.

21Rather than acknowledging and addressing such critiques, however, the Saudi state under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has opted to repress even mild forms of direct criticism. Al‑Zāmil was arrested in September of 2017, part of a crackdown that also targeted dozens of conservative, independent religious clerics who might have criticized social changes underway in the Kingdom. State security forces arrested more peaceful activists in successive waves from 2018 to 2019, and murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. This silencing of criticism in turn makes it difficult to undertake independent analysis of how Saudi citizens view the changes around them, with commentators instead seizing on anecdotes to “narrate” the impact of Vision 2030 reforms – especially to Western audiences. Defenders of the Kingdom cite these mass spectacles (and the sight of Saudi citizens clearly enjoying them) as evidence of the inherent goodness of the reforms and as a defense against criticisms of mounting political repression within the Kingdom.36

Tabletop Games as Material Culture

  • 37 Prown, 1982, p. 2.

22The recent appearance of Saudi‑produced commercial board games provides an intriguing and relatively independent counterpoint to state narratives of development and social change. Where a decade ago the Arabic‑language board‑game market was dominated by rough translations of Western titles, the half‑decade from 2013 to 2018 witnessed a dramatic increase in Arabic‑language titles, many of them developed within Saudi Arabia (Figure 1). Tabletop games and related spaces form a rarely studied aspect of popular culture, with the symbols and narratives embedded in games of chance and strategy, competition and cooperation providing insight into game designers’ – and, indirectly, players’ – understandings of the social world around them. Particularly as recent commercial games have generated ever‑more‑complex game‑worlds in recent years through boards, cards, dice, and game pieces, there is a rich potential to analyze the content of these games as corresponding to “patterns in the mind of the individual producer… and of the society of which he or they were a part.”37

Figure 1: Cumulative percentage of the 224 games in the “Skill Games” category of Jarir Bookstore's website that are primarily in Arabic, beginning with the oldest available product and continuing to the most recent addition to the store’s offerings. While not a perfect measure of the interest in Arabic‑language games, given the lack of available data on board‑game sales this forms the best available proxy. Accessed July 20, 2020. https://www.jarir.com/​sa‑en/kids‑development/puzzles‑and‑skill‑games.html?cat=378%2C526&sort=created_at‑desc

Figure 1: Cumulative percentage of the 224 games in the “Skill Games” category of Jarir Bookstore's website that are primarily in Arabic, beginning with the oldest available product and continuing to the most recent addition to the store’s offerings. While not a perfect measure of the interest in Arabic‑language games, given the lack of available data on board‑game sales this forms the best available proxy. Accessed July 20, 2020. https://www.jarir.com/​sa‑en/kids‑development/puzzles‑and‑skill‑games.html?cat=378%2C526&sort=created_at‑desc
  • 38 Donovan, 2017, pp. 52‑70.
  • 39 Booth, 2018.

23Commercial board games have served as an important medium for popular culture in Europe and North America, with many of the U.S. games mass‑produced in the 20th century – such as Risk, Clue, Scrabble, Taboo – forming a cultural touchstone for generations of U.S. families. Throughout this time, board games have reflected and even advanced important social debates. In one popular game, The Game of Life (1960), players “drive” game pieces shaped like cars along the path of squares reflecting major developments in a “typical” U.S. citizen’s life: marriage, home purchases, financial windfalls, health crises. Despite periodic updates to the game’s content over time – allowing players who earn less money to retire to a “Country Cottage” rather than condemning them to the “Poor Farm,” for example – the game’s rigid sense of “life” attracted academic criticism that it reifies a particular, idealized form of a middle‑to‑upper class, white, suburban U.S. lifestyle.38 Still, board games remain a relatively understudied form of material culture despite a resurgence of popular Western interest in recent years; in the narrow field of “ludology” (the study of games) video games dominate scholarship as they do the overall gaming market, with interpretation of board games largely confined to popular histories.39

  • 40 Orbanes, 2006, pp. 1‑10.
  • 41 Quoted in Donovan, 2017, p. 75.
  • 42 Hall, 2019.

24The most famous U.S. example of board games as both reflection of the designer’s beliefs and a means to shape players’ values is the game Monopoly, in which players traverse a square board purchasing particular properties (represented by squares on the game board) with play money and charging their competitors exorbitant fees whenever a role of the dice takes them to “stay” at these properties. Ironically, the earliest version of the game (the Landlord’s Game, 1902) was an effort to popularize the ideas of economist Henry George, who proposed the aggressive taxation of wealthy U.S. landowners as a means of reducing runaway late‑19th century economic and social inequality.40 Despite the intent of game creator Elizabeth Magie to educate children about “the gross injustice of our present land system”, the basic structure of the Landlord’s Game would eventually be appropriated by more profit‑oriented game developers and released by board‑game firm Parker Brothers as “Monopoly.”41 Now, players were encouraged to identify with wealthy landlords rather than expressing concern at the ways property ownership served to entrench inequality. Bringing this development full circle, in 2019 present‑day trademark owner Hasbro Gaming released a version of the game Monopoly Socialism: Winning is for Capitalists, which seemingly catered to U.S. social conservatives by mocking stylized “leftist” values such as environmentalism, minimum wage increases, and even voting.42

Saudi Tabletop Gaming: Identity, Inequality, and Community

  • 43 Games covered include Saudi Deal (2nd edition, 2015, I.S.B.N. 978.603.01.1718.5), Fun Can (Al‑Gawhr (...)

25Discussions of Monopoly provide us with a framework for analyzing the representation of Saudi societies (past, present, or imaginary) within the “world” of the game, the form of social interaction encouraged by games entrepreneurs, and the way that these games are marketed as distinct social experiences. I analyze the gameplay and game design of several recent Saudi tabletop games.43 I supplement this analysis with semi‑structured interviews with five game designers and one board‑game café owner, while also drawing on media interviews with several other game developers. I further compare the narratives, imagery and argument within these games and conversations to state narratives of development and social change in officials’ statements as well as texts such as the Vision 2030 project document and the Quality‑of‑Life (QoL) strategy document aimed at achieving quality‑of‑life goals within the Vision 2030 project.

  • 44 Furthermore, as few board‑game entrepreneurs would present their projects as explicitly artistic or (...)

26To be sure, the symbols and narratives deployed by these games and their developers do not represent an objective “truth” about Saudi society, any more than Monopoly is an accurate depiction of the United States in the early 20th century. Yet they provide a window into how these entrepreneurs understand their social environments, whether in terms of the ways that they depict Saudi society, the desires they assume in potential customers, or the frames they use to construct “board games” as a distinct commercial product.44

  • 45 Cronin, 2019. Video games certainly form a more lucrative market than their tabletop cousins: 2016, (...)

27Furthermore, and given the extent to which state‑produced narratives heavily structure public discussion of what “Saudi society” is and can be, it is relevant to mention that Saudi tabletop games have attracted little official attention until now. The author’s inquiries at Namaa (responsible for boosting the production of all kinds of “local content”) and the Misk Foundation (an arts‑and‑culture organization chaired by Mohammed bin Salman since 2011) failed to turn up anybody interested in or even aware of local board games production for this article. Official promotion of a Saudi “gaming scene” has focused largely on the production and playing of video games, given the vastly greater economic potential of this sector and the greater potential for Saudi competitors to garner prestige through global “e‑sports” competition online.45 The narratives embedded in board games therefor provide a valuable counterpoint to the state narratives embedded in state‑produced strategy documents, official press releases, and government ministers’ statements.

The Commercial Appeal of “National” Authenticity

  • 46 “Quality of Life Program”, Saudi Vision 2030, 2018, p. 88.

28Tabletop games entrepreneurs implicitly adopt the underlying logic of Vision 2030 reforms in stressing the authenticity of board games as Saudi products that help to express national character and build the national economy. This framing taps into the emphasis on national identity and nationalist pride that has underpinned much of the present reform effort in Saudi Arabia, but that has largely remained implicit within official discourses. The Vision 2030 and Quality of Life strategy documents, for example, tend to discuss “localization” in prosaic economic terms – producing more goods and services within the Kingdom to boost economic activity and job opportunities for Saudi citizens. While the Quality of Life plan does account for “national pride” as a “paramount driver” in making citizens “excited and proud to live in the Kingdom,” it discusses this largely in terms of promoting Saudi “elite athletes” who might inspire a greater sense of national attachment (and a greater interest in physical fitness).46

  • 47 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2013.
  • 48 Interview with male game developer O., October 28, 2018.

29Game developers consistently emphasize appeals to the nation as a mark of authenticity for their games and as a source of motivation for their work. The creator of Saudi Deal, originally released in 2013, described her creation as not simply a translation, but a game “with a Saudi spirit” that should be considered “a cultural product besides its entertainment role.”47 The same desire to produce games with “a Saudi touch” motivated board‑game development by other firms. “When we got started in the games industry, nobody was doing ‘Saudi’ games… We made them with a full [Saudi Arabian] story – it wasn’t just about getting a game out.”48 Games produced entirely within the Kingdom prominently feature the fact that they are “made in Saudi Arabia” on their boxes. Saudi Trifecta likewise make their nationality clear from their name, even as a holographic box sticker flashes the word ORIGINAL (albeit, again, in English) on their signature game Gool bs la tgool!.

Figure 2: Clockwise from top left: Saudi Deal, Gool bs La Tgool, Ruḥt Fīhā, Al‑Mu’āmara.

Figure 2: Clockwise from top left: Saudi Deal, Gool bs La Tgool, Ruḥt Fīhā, Al‑Mu’āmara.

30The very packaging of the new wave of tabletop games speaks to developers’ efforts to make an emotional, identity‑based appeal to Saudi and Arabic‑speaking consumers. The graphic design of these game boxes is at pains to distinguish their contents from imported Western games. Some feature Saudi‑specific images of cartoonish Saudi young men running down a city street (Ruḥt Fīhā) or an illustration of a glowering, bisht‑wearing shaykh looking out against a desert backdrop (al‑Mu’āmara). Games that rely less on “transporting” players to another world rely on bright packaging and innovative Arabic‑language calligraphy to stand out against game boxes entirely in English or with transliterated titles tacked on in a default font. Often, stores such as Jarir Bookstore further emphasize the distinction by grouping newer, Arabic‑language games in their own section of shelves.

  • 49 Interview with male game developer F., October 13, 2018.

31Local language and imagery present a further source of appeal – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Arabic‑speaking consumers have long had to rely on low‑quality translations of Western titles such as Scrabble or else resort to importing English‑language games. Even the game Fun Can, a modification of a standard playing‑card deck where players try to collect different sets of cards, includes a series of “action cards” scripted in colloquial Saudi Arabic – Halā bil‑‘ayāl, translated as “Hi, guys”, allows players to draw additional cards. One game designer emphasized that such colloquialisms were a way to build a stronger connection between gamers and games.49

  • 50 See Twitter thread regarding this topic following a question posed to an account that serves as a r (...)
  • 51 “Hip‑hop on the rise in the Arab World: Homies in da hood”, Arab News, April 20, 2011, [https://www (...)
  • 52 “Sa‘ūdiyyāt yudāfi‘na ‘an rukabihinna bi‑ḥamlat “Abū sarwāl wa‑fanīlla” al‑muḍādda [Saudi girls def (...)

32These tabletop games draw on a deep well of tropes and imagery in Saudi culture to convince players of the “authenticity” of their gaming. In al‑Mu’āmara (“The Conspiracy”), where players compete to collect as many coins as possible, a security‑guard character is named for (and designed to look like) Jawhar, a legendary bodyguard for the Saudi Royal Court.50 Likewise in Ruḥt Fīhā, where players compete to simply avoid losing in the form of drawing the titular Ruḥt Fīhā (“You’re screwed”) card, features a range of characters drawn from Saudi youth culture (Figure 3). These include the “Gangster,” obsessed with U.S. hip‑hop music;51 the “Cobra,” sporting aviator sunglasses and wearing his ghutra head‑covering in the eponymous style; and “Mr. Shorts and Undershirt” reflecting a joking term for young men who care so little about their appearance they don’t even bother to put on a thawb overgarment to go out. 52

Figure 3: Five of the characters included in the game Ruḥt Fīhā. From left to right: Abū Sarwāl wa‑falīna (“Mr. Shorts and Undershirt”), al‑Kūbrā (the “Cobra,” referring to the style of wearing the red‑and‑white ghutra), al‑Gāngstīr (the “Gangster”), al‑Dāfūr (the “Nerd”), and al‑Ṭāḥis (the “Slacker”).

Figure 3: Five of the characters included in the game Ruḥt Fīhā. From left to right: Abū Sarwāl wa‑falīna (“Mr. Shorts and Undershirt”), al‑Kūbrā (the “Cobra,” referring to the style of wearing the red‑and‑white ghutra), al‑Gāngstīr (the “Gangster”), al‑Dāfūr (the “Nerd”), and al‑Ṭāḥis (the “Slacker”).

33Developers spoke of these cultural gestures as fostering a deeper emotional connection between players by affording them a more comfortable and familiar games environment. “Some of the ideas behind our games are universal, and the American company Hasbro has them on the market here, but what makes ours extremely enjoyable is that fact that they speak our language,” stated Rola Badkook, one of the Saudi women behind the games firm Rock.Paper.Scissors (RPS).53 “Where is the emotional connection?” asked two female game developers as part of their initial games‑development process. “[I]n Saudi, you don’t have a lot of [games] development or really cool board games… we’re trying to be cool and new and appeal to the younger generation.”54

34Notably, developers also seek to foster connections through exclusion, by making it clear that their commercial games prioritize the experiences of Saudi, or at least Gulf Arab, consumers rather than those of a “typical” gamer who might not be as familiar with Saudi cultural tropes or dialect.

  • 55 Alhussein, 2019, pp. 7‑8.
  • 56 And over the objections of some religious scholars, see “Mufāja’a: al‑malik ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz qarrara i (...)

35In all, these efforts at commercial marketing mirror and at times predate Mohammed bin Salman’s “highly visual” incorporation of national symbols and nationalist rhetoric into official speeches, suggesting that both appeals seek to tap into and refine underlying discourses of the Saudi “nation.”55 Even under King ‘Abdullāh, the Saudi state sought to incorporate more explicitly nationalist appeals into its strategies of legitimation – most notably, in designating September 23rd the country’s official “National Day” after King ‘Abdullāh’s succession to the throne in 2005, commemorating the unification of the Kingdom under King ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz Āl Sa‘ūd.56

  • 57 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2013.
  • 58 Hertog, 2015.

36At the same time, the efforts of game designers to connect with Saudi consumers underline the ways that nationalist discourses can reproduce existing social divisions and stereotypes. To be sure, a national‑identity framing can downplay some divisions in favor of a collective identity for the Kingdom. The developer of Saudi Deal, for example, explicitly intended the game to play a role in “[getting] young people to know the many cities in governorates in my country.”57 The game features a diverse range of locations from all over the Kingdom, while the monetary values accorded to different regions do not replicate the spatial inequalities that have concentrated wealth and power in the country’s political and geographic center.58

  • 59 Taḥt Li‑Taḥt is a very similar game to al‑Mu’āmara.
  • 60 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2013.

37Yet there is a dearth of female characters across Saudi‑themed game‑worlds – perhaps unsurprising given the stark gender segregation imposed by the Saudi government for much of the Kingdom’s recent history. All named characters in Ruḥt Fīhā and al‑Mu’āmara are men, even if shown as representing different social classes within the Kingdom, while only a single female character appears in Taḥt Li‑Taḥt (“Under the Table”) – “Aunt Moznah,” who can prevent other players from prying into the holder’s cards.59 Even Saudi Deal, despite the geographic diversity it incorporates into a national whole, contains no imagery of women. This despite the game’s female developer insistence that the game would be enjoyable to men and women alike – and perhaps reflective of a context where a female reporter for Al‑Sharq Al‑Awsat wondered why a Saudi woman would be interested in a game revolving around the (masculine) activity of managing real estate!60

  • 61 For one Saudi debate over how this rhetoric manifests online, see Bin Nakhīlān, 2020.
  • 62 Interview with male game developer F.

38Likewise, “authenticity” is an inherently contested quality. Nationalist appeals by the Saudi state, a backdrop to the Vision 2030 reforms, have stoked public enthusiasm for government policies but have also encouraged exclusionist rhetoric over who is truly Saudi and who is truly patriotic.61 While the tabletop games world is far calmer than most social‑media platforms, this dynamic can still manifest in terms of developers contesting what it means to develop a truly Saudi board game. “Of all the games in Saudi Arabia, maybe 90% are taken from American models… You know Monopoly Deal? It was made into Saudi Deal. Just imitation!” noted one male game developer F.62 He likewise emphasized that his games were entirely “Made in Saudi,” rather than designed in the Kingdom and then printed more cheaply at a factory in China.

39Furthermore, some games enthusiasts countered that national pedigree was not the only metric of “authenticity” for board game experiences. R., for example, first encountered board games while living abroad in Vienna with his family. Upon returning to Saudi Arabia, and despite full‑time employment at an unrelated company, he founded one of the Kingdom’s few gaming cafes to recreate his own enjoyment of these games for others. The café – a converted office space that incorporated tables for gaming, shelves to display imported game offerings, and a small café for refreshments – quickly became a popular location for younger Saudi men and women in the surrounding city to meet up and play board games.

  • 63 Interview with male board game café owner R., November 5, 2018.

40To R., Saudi games production (as of late 2018) often amounted to little more than copyright infringement. “Some of the Saudi publishers come in with their games and I reject almost 95% of them. If it’s a game that is only a copy of European games that has been translated or localized, I am not interested... It is the right of the original publisher to know it was translated.” R. instead focused on the enjoyment of the gaming experience as the more important aspect of “authenticity.” “Once we introduce [visitors] to the other games” – from over 150 European and U.S. games in the café’s collection – “they get excited about it and want to try more.”63

  • 64 Interview with male café owner R.

41However, even R. noted the appeal of rich graphic designs and attention to language for Saudi audiences. Speaking of Saudi Trifecta games, he remarked that while he didn’t stock the game, the developers had made it “beautiful in Arabic… people enjoy bringing it to play here [in the café], and if they want to buy the game I tell them to go to Jarir [a major bookstore chain].”64

Competition in the Face of Inequality

  • 65 Jones, 2017, pp. 12‑33.

42In describing their motivations, game developers by and large prized the “competitive spirit” of entrepreneurship, viewing personal “grit” and self‑reliance as essential to economic success in life. These narratives of success, and the structure of competition within many commercial games, dovetail with state‑backed efforts to produce more market‑oriented “neoliberal” citizens not just in Saudi Arabia, but elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula and the broader world.65 At the same time, games’ depiction of Saudi society can hint at fundamental inequalities which no amount of individual resolve can overcome. This in turn casts into sharp relief the fact that recent reforms often entail the wider distribution of risk while placing yet more of the Saudi economy under the control of the state (and a privileged few).

  • 66 Vision 2030, 2016, pp. 36‑37, 72.
  • 67 Interview with male game developer A., October 4, 2018.
  • 68 Interview with male game developer F.
  • 69 Interview with female game developer L.

43Developers narrate their own paths to entrepreneurial success in line with Vision 2030’s emphasis on a more entrepreneurial, self‑reliant Saudi citizenry, framing their business‑world trials as an opportunity to build character and ensure their economic security. The Vision document itself speaks of building “a culture that rewards determination” while reminding citizens that “we are each personally responsible for our own futures” and will prove “committed and disciplined” in the workplace.66 For one game developer, bringing a game to the market while still in university was a way of taking such responsibility – developing a “commercial mindset” or set of skills that would offset the growing uncertainties of public‑sector employment.67 One male game developer, already a successful public‑relations professional when he began developing games, in turn saw entrepreneurship (and the additional effort it entailed) as a way to get to “a higher level” in terms of quality of life – as embodied in building an expansive villa for himself and his family.68 A Jeddah‑based developer noted that she “didn’t mind having to fly to Riyadh to [make a pitch] to sell the game… We have to stand up for ourselves.”69

  • 70 Interview with female game developer L.
  • 71 Interview with male game developer O.
  • 72 Hertog, 2011, p. 191‑201.

44Above all, board game developers’ narrations of their experiences reflected an acceptance of the vicissitudes of the market. “2018, as you know, has been a difficult year for us,” said one female game designer, referring to the economic situation for all Saudis. “We understand that people have less disposable income… and things are becoming more expensive.”70 O., a game designer, likewise conceded that 2018 was a “difficult year,” but stressed his company’s efforts to ride out the storm by offering more affordable games. “We bargained and got a better market price in the factories,” he noted. “It’s about getting a good price for the consumer… other games are bigger and have more interactive materials, but they probably cost 79 riyals (€18) rather than 49 riyals (€11).”71 Notably, no board‑games interview subjects complained about the need for state support for their particular sector – a common refrain from representatives of more established representatives of the Saudi private sector.72

  • 73 Interview with male café owner R.

45These entrepreneurs in turn spoke of others’ desires to share in this worldview. “I had always wanted to have my own business… and I saw a chance with board games,” noted R., in highlighting his decision to open the board‑game café. “After almost two years [the main founders and I] haven’t made much money, but we still enjoy the process.”73 Yet he appeared frustrated that the process of entrepreneurship did not engage some others in the same way. “[The employees] start excited and talk about how it’s fun to play games and get paid for it. Then two to three weeks later they’re bored because they keep explaining the same game to different people… and the customer feels it.”

  • 74 Interview with male game developer O.

46Game developers have passed along this “entrepreneurial spirit” in several of their games. O. spoke of designing one of his firm’s first games around the “hidden message” that “there is no luck in life, that it’s all in your head” – in other words, individuals make their own fortunes.74 While this game is set in a fictional haunted forest, seemingly drawing on Western horror films, a number of traditional Saudi games explicitly set in Saudi Arabia reinforce this competitive aesthetic. Saudi Deal replicates the competitive property acquisition of Monopoly, localizing gameplay through cosmetic flourishes rather than questioning the consumerist drive of the original game. Players might be forced to pay out zakāt, obligatory almsgiving under Islam, to the poorest player, or improve the value of their property by building a mosque (rather than only the houses and hotels of the original), but are still competing to buy up as much Saudi real estate as possible. Taḥt Li‑Taḥt and al‑Mu’amara take this competitive dynamic yet further, urging players to eliminate each other from competition while accumulating wealth. “Surely your goal is more than simply staying in the game, right?” Taḥt Li‑Taḥt ’s description notes, in encouraging player to use “cunning and guile” to win by gathering as much money as possible.

Figure 4: Depictions of “Rich Uncle Pennybags” in Monopoly Deal (left) and Saudi Deal (right). Source: Monopoly Deal Card Game, Copyright Hasbro, Inc. (2008); Saudi Deal (card game), Copyright Zaynab al‑Līfa (2015).

Figure 4: Depictions of “Rich Uncle Pennybags” in Monopoly Deal (left) and Saudi Deal (right). Source: Monopoly Deal Card Game, Copyright Hasbro, Inc. (2008); Saudi Deal (card game), Copyright Zaynab al‑Līfa (2015).

47Still, when designers set about portraying Saudi society within their games, these depictions acknowledge considerable inequalities of wealth and influence. Many games “set” in Saudi Arabia incorporate the character of a powerful sheikh who can shield players from harm or easily garner wealth through social connections. In Saudi Deal, the game mascot of “Rich Uncle Pennybags” is made over from the image of wealth and power in 1920s U.S. society – an older white man in a morning suit, bow tie, and top hat – into an image of wealth and power in contemporary Saudi Arabia: a shaykh wearing a white thawb, a gold‑lined black bisht overcoat, clutching misbaḥ prayer beads in one hand (Figure 4). In the game, the image of the shaykh accompanies actions that force players to hand over money; likewise, in Taḥt Li‑Taḥt and al‑Mu’āmara, cards depicting the shaykh permit players to take more money than usual from the communal pile. In Ruḥt Fīhā, “Bisht” cards in turn depict a bisht and ring‑wearing, misbah‑thumbing shaykh who can prevent the player from being ejected from the game (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The “shaykh” in various Saudi tabletop games. From left to right: the bisht card protects players from losing the game in Ruḥt Fīhā; the shaykh allows players to acquire more money in al‑Mu’āmara; in Monopoly Deal, the card “idfaʿ w‑anta sākit” [Pay without saying anything], with the shaykh speaking the line, forces players to obey any other “action card”; likewise, in Monopoly Deal, the card “ʿaṭih illī yabī” [“Give him what he wants”] utilizes the image of the shaykh in forcing players to hand over money.

Figure 5: The “shaykh” in various Saudi tabletop games. From left to right: the bisht card protects players from losing the game in Ruḥt Fīhā; the shaykh allows players to acquire more money in al‑Mu’āmara; in Monopoly Deal, the card “idfaʿ w‑anta sākit” [Pay without saying anything], with the shaykh speaking the line, forces players to obey any other “action card”; likewise, in Monopoly Deal, the card “ʿaṭih illī yabī” [“Give him what he wants”] utilizes the image of the shaykh in forcing players to hand over money.
  • 75 Hope, Scheck, Said & Jones, 2020.
  • 76 “Quality of Life Program” Saudi Vision 2030, 2018, p. 88.

48This portrayal cuts closer to the reality of “getting ahead” in Saudi Arabia, where recent economic changes have mainly replaced family‑run oligarchies with state‑run monopolies in the private sector, rather than laying the groundwork for more open economic competition. While the present Saudi leadership symbolically and literally attacked the “old way” of doing business in 2017 by sequestering many of the Kingdom’s wealthiest individuals in the Ritz‑Carlton hotel on allegations of corruption, limited transparency in the wake of the arrests inspires little confidence that the anti‑corruption campaign will amount to more than redistributing wealth and power among the existing Saudi elite. And rather than building up private‑sector representatives as partners in development, the past few years have seen the consolidation of economic power within the Kingdom’s public investment fund, managed by a close associate of the Crown Prince.75 Even when it comes to entertainment, despite an insistence that “the bulk of infrastructure spending is expected to come from the private sector,” the bulk of the QoL document deals with how the government can provide entertainment services either directly or by subsidizing private‑sector investment.76

Transforming Societies

49Finally, while tabletop games entrepreneurs clearly share with Saudi leadership the idea of reforming Saudi society through entertainment, they imagine an approach rooted more in strengthening the country’s existing social fabric than in changing the mindset of individual Saudis, or encouraging individual loyalty to the Saudi state. While board‑games entrepreneurs do not explicitly note this potential point of conflict, the subversive potential of board games and board‑game spaces – as printed media and as a basis for social gatherings beyond the purview of the state – nevertheless appears both in occasional frictions with the Saudi state and in these developers’ implied skepticism over the benefits conferred by rapid, hi‑tech development.

  • 77 “Law of Printing and Publication,” Royal decree M/32, October 28, 2003, [https://www.saudiembassy.n (...)
  • 78 “UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms whi (...)
  • 79 Al‑‘Abūsh, 2016.
  • 80 Al‑māliyya tad‘u al‑tijāra li‑haẓr lu‘bat S‘aūdī dīl [Finance calls on Commerce to ban Saudi Deal] (...)

50All board‑game developers described negotiating the fact that their products entail print material and gatherings, two elements long deemed potentially subversive by the Saudi state. The 2003 “Law of Printing and Publication” places all forms of printing, publication, and distribution under the supervision of the Ministry of Information (the Ministry of Media since 2018).77 At the same time, Saudi law provides no clear guarantees of speech or assembly, with numerous arrests and sweeping security interventions justified in the name of “national security.”78 There is recent precedent for applying these controls to even innocuous activities. In 2016, the Ministry of Culture and Information (now two separate ministries) seized thousands of books that were “not cleared” with the ministry from Al‑Rawi Café, on the outskirts of Riyadh, a common meeting place for (male) Saudi intellectuals.79 Even Saudi Deal was briefly banned that year after the Saudi Ministry of Finance determined that its depiction of Saudi currency violated regulations against counterfeiting – a new edition featured less realistic currency cards.80

  • 81 Interview with male game developer A.
  • 82 Interview with male game developer O.
  • 83 Interview with male café owner R.

51These restrictions have in turn posed a challenge to would‑be board game developers. “At the start of the games market in Saudi Arabia, there simply weren’t legal structures in place [for it],” noted one male developer. “It took four months just to get permission to print.”81 Many Saudi developers initially registered their games as “books” simply because the Ministry of Information didn’t have a “board game” category in print‑license application forms.82 Even importing games poses regulatory challenges beyond the high cost of shipment. “Customs sometimes says [the games] are okay to enter the country, and sometimes sends them to the Ministry of Information for approval,” café owner R. noted. “Even when we were opening the store‑café, they didn’t know what to write on the permit. The first one they called an “educational toys and games” store… the second one they deemed a café even though I don’t serve coffee and don’t even have an espresso machine, though I’m trying to get one soon!”83

  • 84 “Quality of Life Program” Saudi Vision 2030, 2018, p. 83.
  • 85 Interview with male game developer O.

52While interviewees acknowledged occasional difficulties due to legal restrictions, they framed these as challenges posed by an inefficient bureaucracy rather than the constraints imposed by the Saudi state’s suspicion of independent political activity. Several praised Vision 2030 efforts as implementing “transparent and simple licensing processes” that ensured more efficient and pro‑business regulations.84 “You can apply online” for printing licenses, O. remarked approvingly. “You don’t need to go to the Ministry to get things approved, making life much easier for gaming companies.”85

53Yet where an expansion of e‑government services has diminished the physical presence of the state in some areas of economic regulation and government administration, Vision 2030 still envisions a considerable role for the state in remaking Saudi citizens. A “National Character Enrichment Program,” which has yet to publish a full plan, in turn promises “policies centered on Saudi youth to strengthen the values of entrepreneurship, generosity, volunteering, excellence, hard work, ambition and optimism.”86 The imagery of cutting‑edge technology forms an integral part of this top‑down change. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has depicted the Vision 2030 reforms through symbols of technological progress, symbolizing the “new” Saudi Arabia with a brand‑new iPhone 8 in contrast to the “old” Kingdom – a basic Nokia cellphone (Figure 6).87

Figure 6: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative in 2017, comparing the “old” Saudi Arabia (a Nokia 105 cell phone, c. 2013 but similar to older models that date back to 2003) and the “new” Saudi Arabia (an iPhone 8, released in 2017). Source: Ahmed Al Omran, Twitter post (@ahmed). October 24, 2017. https://twitter.com/​ahmed/​status/​922931058932191232

Figure 6: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative in 2017, comparing the “old” Saudi Arabia (a Nokia 105 cell phone, c. 2013 but similar to older models that date back to 2003) and the “new” Saudi Arabia (an iPhone 8, released in 2017). Source: Ahmed Al Omran, Twitter post (@ahmed). October 24, 2017. https://twitter.com/​ahmed/​status/​922931058932191232
  • 88 Scott, 1998, pp. 342‑348.
  • 89 Hawthorne, 2018.
  • 90 Nāshiṭūn: i‘tiqāl dā‘iya intaqada hay’at at‑tarfīh al‑sa‘ūdiyya”, Al‑Hurra, September 11, 2019, [h (...)

54This in turn calls to mind James Scott’s memorable critique of large‑scale social engineering in the 20th century, warning that even developmental schemes “animated by a genuine desire to improve the human condition” might ultimately “impoverish the local wellsprings of economic, social, and cultural self‑expression” if they attempt to impose “social strait‑jacketing” on a diverse citizenry.88 Unsurprisingly, these top‑down changes come as the Saudi state’s mounting repression of numerous independent forms of social organization (however weak) within Saudi society that might hinder, challenge, or even attempt to refine the government’s efforts at social change – or pose a more direct political challenge down the line.89 Where conservative critics were able to force the removal of the head of the GEA in 2018 by sparking online outrage, for example, a prominent independent cleric was reportedly arrested in 2019 for saying that the GEA was “sacrificing modesty in pursuit of entertainment.”90

  • 91 Al‑Mogren, 2018; Twenge, 2017.
  • 92 See Al‑ʿAlawī, 2016 for a portrayal of a friend group’s efforts to organize a memorial service via (...)

55While outright criticism of state policies is quite rare at present, due to the clear example of what happens to open domestic critics of the Saudi state, skepticism of rapid development still manifests in the form of concerns over the social cost of technological change. Saudi columnists have certainly joined in the global moral panic about “smartphone addiction,” with no end of articles in European and North American outlets fretting over the “deleterious effects of ‘screen time’”.91 Even short stories by contemporary Saudi writers have focused on the fraying of community bonds due to the numbing effects of social media.92

  • 93 Donovan, 2017, p. 256.
  • 94 Interview with female game developer R., November 2, 2019.

56Board‑game entrepreneurs implicitly tap into these concerns by focusing on the offline interactions their games foster and contrasting them with the alienating effects of screen time. This is a common trope in discussions of tabletop games, with one recent popular history concluding that “it is this ability [of board games] to bring us together fact‑to‑face that is tabletop gaming’s secret weapon and ensures that, even in an age of smartphones and PlayStations, board games are thriving rather than dying.”93 Regardless of the ability of smartphones and video games to “bring people together” and build communities in their own ways, Saudi games entrepreneurs contrast the tabletop experience with the “alienation” induced by electronic games. The founders of one board-game firm described their business model in exactly these terms, targeting Saudis in search of home entertainment that would bring the family together rather than encouraging members to retreat into the physical‑world solitude of phones.94

Figure 7: Players' pledge inside the lid of the game box for Gool bs La Tgool. The text reads: “Pledge” ‑ “We, the players of Gool bs La Tgool, pledge to leave our phones inside the box... and to play without using technology to enjoy and live in the moment in its entirety.”

Figure 7: Players' pledge inside the lid of the game box for Gool bs La Tgool. The text reads: “Pledge” ‑ “We, the players of Gool bs La Tgool, pledge to leave our phones inside the box... and to play without using technology to enjoy and live in the moment in its entirety.”

57Some game designers take this trope to an extreme, with one designer noting that “People hang out together but they’re actually on their phones… We wanted to break these barriers to bring people together.”95 The company’s games convey this message directly, with Gool bs La Tgool requiring players to place their phones inside the game box during play. Inscribed on the game box lid (Figure 7) is a “players’ pledge” to “leave our mobile phones inside the box… and play without using technology to enjoy and live in the moment in its entirety.” The group is not above using social media to market its games, and even produced a (poorly reviewed) phone‑app version of the game in 2018.96 Yet even the company’s Instagram page features periodic photos reminding fans that too much phone use takes people away from friends and family.97

  • 98 Khalaf, 2017.
  • 99 Zaini, 2017.

58Game developers rely on the idea that board games foster “authentic,” in‑person interactions to frame their products as re‑knitting a fraying social fabric and building a healthier Saudi society. Games firm RPS narrates their offerings as providing Saudi customers with the tools to realize their own creative potential, bringing together child psychotherapist Rafah’s interest in the potential of “play therapy” and Rola’s desire to build a company around a broader social mission. In an interview with AlkhaleejOnline, they spoke of a desire to “realize the [creative] potential in a society that isn’t thought to be creative.”98 Mahmoud, a developer of a combination animation studio and graphic design firm based in Jeddah also stressed the role of board games in encouraging “cohesion and spirit,” something “very important to all of humanity.”99

  • 100 Sabāḥ al‑‘Arabiyya: ’al‘āb sha‘biyya sa‘ūdiyya ta‘ūd min jadīd [Alarabiya Morning: Popular Saudi g (...)

59These games’ connection to Saudi heritage and the contemporary experiences of Saudi citizens therefor becomes not just a commercial selling point, but a means of providing players with a familiar environment for building these “authentic,” deeper connections with each other. This is clearly seen in RPS’s inaugural game box Eid Carnival, a collection of games designed to be enjoyed by the entire family during Islamic holidays – including kumkum, a game from the Hejaz region based on tossing a group of seashells. The company’s Bidūn Kalām [“Without words”], likewise centers a game of charades around traditional sayings from across the Arab world as a basis for charades, as a way for grandparents and grandchildren to bond through wordplay.100

  • 101 Interview with male game developer O.
  • 102 Zaini, 2017.

60This discourse – of authentic games fostering authentic interactions – assumes a latent Saudi social demand for more meaningful in‑person interaction. A major reason for firms to pursue board games at all was because “people want to interact with humans rather than playing [on their phones].”101 Even studios such as Innov8 that aim to “bridge the gap” – developing app games, traditional games, and crossovers – recognize that there was an un‑met demand for in‑person games. The company’s Mahmoud al‑Zaini likewise stressed that board games fit perfectly with the existing desires of many Saudi consumers. “Conservative, family ‑ and home‑centered Saudi Arabia is… a fertile ground for the introduction of new highly social board games and card games.”102

Conclusion

61Are tabletop games entrepreneurs successful in their commercial appeals? To be sure, the Saudi tabletop gaming scene is a relatively minor development in a rapidly expanding Saudi entertainment scene encompassing cinemas, car racing, professional wrestling, and pop‑up commercial districts. The cost of putting on a subsidized, high‑profile concert with a major Western band or singer in Jeddah or Riyadh would likely be enough to buy out an entire city’s worth of retail board games, while the audience could just as easily outnumber all Saudi citizens visiting all the Kingdom’s extant board‑game cafes over the course of an entire month.

  • 103 Alhamdan, 2017.
  • 104 Interview with male café owner R.

62Yet while tabletop games are too small of an industry within Saudi Arabia to gauge the accuracy of entrepreneurs’ assessments, anecdotal evidence – and the very survival of many game firms – suggests that their appeals resonate with some Saudi audiences. Saudi Gazette quoted one Saudi housewife in 2017 to the effect that “These games enhance your communication skills, make you smile... Most of the electronic games make you feel lonely and you spend long time alone.”103 This kind of interest overwhelmed games‑café owner R.’s initial location, leading him to move to a larger space. “It was getting totally crowded on the weekends, to the point that people started making reservations.”104 Furthermore, the isolation of the tabletop games world from direct state backing provides us with a relatively independent perspective on the discursive appeals that motivate some segments of Saudi society (i.e. young entrepreneurs) and in turn the appeals that game developers reckon will resonate with their customers – a focus on local language and national identity, an acknowledgement of the hidden hierarchies that shape socio‑economic opportunities, and the facilitation of in‑person interactions.

  • 105 See an initial discussion on the reception of video and tabletop games in Saudi Arabia in Thompson, (...)
  • 106 Bishr, 2007.
  • 107 Alahbabi, 2009, pp. 85‑111.
  • 108 Ménoret, 2011, pp. 169‑171.
  • 109 Determann, 2014.
  • 110 For a critical look at the reception of “reform” under Kings Sa‘ūd and Faiṣal, see Vitalis, 2007; f (...)

63This preliminary analysis suggests several courses of future research regarding Saudi society, to better separate narratives of “unprecedented” reform from changes that long predated Vision 2030, and officials’ projections of what citizens want from the actual desires of citizens. As an initial step, subsequent work could more directly investigate consumers’ understandings of these games to better gauge the resonance of authenticity‑ and community‑based framings rather than inferring these from games’ commercial success.105 More broadly, while important studies have stressed the wealth of perspectives embedded in Saudi television shows,106 novels,107 popular songs,108 and “local” histories,109 there remains no end of material to explore in plotting the origins and articulation of national tropes and symbols for Saudi Arabia. A deeper understanding of Saudi “nationalisms” can better account for the discourses that state officials and game developers alike have drawn on in framing various appeals to citizen‑consumers. Additionally, while the challenges of this kind of research are considerable, a better understanding of how segments of Saudi society perceive hierarchies of power, wealth, and opportunity would offer insight into the periodic, quasi‑populist appeals of Mohammed bin Salman and his predecessors – and the extent to which these resonate with Saudi audiences as combatting existing inequalities, or ring hollow as doing little to address them.110 We might furthermore juxtapose how the same policy changes are received and remembered quite differently across a heterogeneous Saudi society.

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Bibliographie

Al‑Zāmil, ‘Iṣām [=AlZamel, Essam], “Ru’yat al‑Sa‘ūdiyya 2030 – wa‑limādhā sa‑yatimm bay‘ sharikat Aramco? [Saudi Vision 2030 – and why will Aramco be sold?],” Youtube, May 2, 2016, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoEQkFWKTk8].

Al Ahbabi, Amna, “Towards an Aesthetic of Resistance: The Saudi Daring Disclosure in the Works of Turki al‑Hamad,” MA Thesis, Perdue University, 2009.

Al‑‘Abūsh, Qaḥṭān, “Mālik maqhā al‑rāwī li‑Erem News: mustamirr bil‑mashrū‘ wa‑tawsi‘atihi [Owner of Al‑Rawi Café to Erem News: Continuing with the Project and Expanding],” Erem News, November 6, 2016, [https://www.eremnews.com/culture/books/600650].

Al‑‘Alawī, Maqbūl, “Qrūb li‑takrīm al‑marḥūm [Group to honor the deceased]” in the short story collection Al‑Qubṭī [The Copt], Dar al‑Saqi 2016, 7‑14.

Al‑Arian, Abdullah, Interview in “Bloodlines”, On the Media, October 19, 2018, [https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/segments/on‑the‑media‑2018‑10‑19?tab=summary].

Al‑Bāḥiṣ, Sa‘īd, “Qānūn munaẓẓim lil‑bilūt … wa‑min shurūṭihi la muqāmara wa‑lā rihān [A law setting rules for Bilūt – and among its principles, no gambling]”, ‘Ukāẓ, September 15, 2013, [https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/864387].

Alhamdan, Shahd, “Reviving Memories”, Saudi Gazette, July 8, 2017, [http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/512312].

Alhussein, Eman, “Saudi First: how hyper‑nationalism is transforming Saudi Arabia”, Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2019, pp. 7‑8.

Al‑Khaṭṭāf, Īmān, “Sa‘ūdī dīl… nuskha sha‘biyya min lu‘bat “mūnūbūlī” al‑dawliyya [Saudi Deal… popular copy of international Monopoly game]”, Al‑Sharq al‑Awsat, March 4, 2013, [https://archive.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=54&article=719599&issueno=12515#.XXaF‑ShKhPY].

Al‑Mayman, Hussam, “Nearly 2,500 compete in Saudi Arabia’s second Baloot championship,” Arab News, October 28, 2018. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1395036/saudi‑arabia.

Al‑Mogren, Samar, “Addiction to smartphones”, Saudi Gazette, August 2, 2018, [http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/article/540277].

Al‑Mushayqaḥ, Mushayqaḥ, “Fī baḥth a‘addahu Mushayqaḥ al‑Mushayqaḥ: Asrār wa‑khafāyā lu‘bat al‑ bilūt [In Mushaiqeh al‑Mushaiqeh’s research: secrets of Biloot card game]”, Al‑Jazirah, April 21, 2000, [http://www.al‑jazirah.com/2000/20000421/is12.htm].

Al‑Rashīd, Ṭāriq, “Hay’at al‑riyāḍa tuḥaqqiq aḥlām al‑sa‘ūdiyyīn wa‑ ta‘atamid awwal buṭūla rasmiyya li‑l‑‘bilūt’ [Sports Authority achieves dreams of Saudis and organized first official competition for bilūt]”, Al‑sharq al‑Awsat, February 17, 2018, [www.aawsat.com/home/article/1176661/هيئةالرياضةتحققحلمالسعوديينوتعتمدأولبطولةرسميةلـ«البلوت»].

Bādī, Ibrāhīm, “Al‑maqāhī tazdaḥim fī ‘uṭlāt nihāyat al‑usbū‘ wa‑l‑ḥajz ḍarūri”, Al‑Ḥayāt, September 7, 2004 [http://www.alhayat.com/article/1223139].

Bin Nakhīlān, Muhammad, “Episode 0211”, Trend Podcast, June 2020, [https://soundcloud.com/trend_podcast/0211a].

Birkner, Christine, “From Monopoly to Exploding Kittens, Board Games Are Making a Comeback,” Adweek, April 3, 2017, [https://www.adweek.com/brand‑marketing/from‑monopoly‑to‑exploding‑kittens‑board‑games‑are‑making‑a‑comeback/].

Bishr, Badriyya, Ma‘ārik Ṭāsh mā ṭāsh, Beirut, Markaz al‑Thaqāfa al‑‘Arabī, 2007.

Black, Ian, “Janadriyah heritage festival celebrates symbols of Saudi identity,” The Guardian, April 4, 2013, [https://www.theguardian.com/world/blog/2013/apr/04/janadriyah‑heritage‑festival‑saudi‑identity].

Booth, Paul, “Missing a Piece:(The Lack of) Board Game Scholarship in Media Studies,” Velvet Light Trap 81 (2018), pp. 57‑80.

Chokshi, Niraj, “Saudi Arabia Blocks Israel’s Chess Team from World Championships”, The New York Times, December 26, 2017, [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/26/world/middleeast/saudi‑arabia‑israel‑chess.html].

Cooke, Miriam, Tribal modern: Branding new nations in the Arab Gulf, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2014.

Cronin, Sean, “Women challenge male domination in booming Saudi gaming scene,” Arab News, March 30, 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1474776/media.

Determann, Jörg Matthias, Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the state in the Middle East, London, IB Tauris, 2014.

Donovan, Tristan, It's all a game: The history of board games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, London, Macmillan, 2017.

Ennis, Crystal A, “Between trend and necessity: Top‐down entrepreneurship promotion in Oman and Qatar,” The Muslim World 105‑1 (2015), pp. 120‑124.

Foley, Sean, Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom, Boulder, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019). Games covered include Saudi Deal (2nd edition, 2015, I.S.B.N. 978.603.01.1718.5), Fun Can (Al‑Gawhra Trading Establishment, 2015, no registration # provided), Wajh al‑Naḥs (Inov8, 2017, no registration # provided), Gool bs la tgool! [gūl bass lā tgūl] (Saudi Trifecta, 2016, no registration # provided), al‑Mu’āmara (2017, Saudi registration # 1438/9452), Ruḥt Fīhā (2018, Saudi registration # 1439/4399), Taḥt Li‑Taḥt (Taht alTaht, 2018, no registration # provided).

Goldberg, Jeffrey, “Saudi Crown Prince: Iran's Supreme Leader 'Makes Hitler Look Good',” The Atlantic, April 2, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/mohammed‑bin‑salman‑iran‑israel/557036/.

Ḥaḍāḍ, Muḥammad, “’Nokia 105’ wa‑iPhone 8 fi yad waliyy al‑‘ahd… risāla dhakiyya li‑afkār jarī’a [Nokia 105 and iPhone 8 in the hand of the Crown Prince… smart message of brave ideas],” SABQ, October 25, 2017, [https://sabq.org/BXFrjQ].

Hall, Charlie, “Monopoly Socialism is a bad game created as ineffective parody,” Polygon, August 27, 2019. https://www.polygon.com/2019/8/27/20830085/monopoly‑socialism‑board‑game‑hasbro‑target.

Hammond, Andrew, The Islamic utopia: the illusion of reform in Saudi Arabia, London: Pluto Press, 2012.

Hawthorne, Amy, and Unnamed Individual, “Blind Ambition: Repressing Dissent and Stifling Public Opinion in Saudi Arabia,” Project on Middle East Democracy, May 21, 2018.

Hertog, Steffen, “The political economy of regional development in post‑World War II Saudi Arabia,” in Saudi Arabia in Transition, eds. Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix, Cambridge University Press, 2015: 97‑124.

Hertog, Steffen, Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Hope, Bradley, Scheck, Justin, Said, Summer, & Jones, Rory, “How a Reality‑TV Producer Became Rainmaker to $300 Billion Saudi Fund,” The Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how‑a‑reality‑tv‑producer‑became‑rainmaker‑to‑300‑billion‑saudi‑fund‑11581380021.

Hubbard, Ben, “Saudi Arabia Lightens Up, Building Entertainment Industry from Scratch,” The New York Times, March 17, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/world/middleeast/saudi‑arabia‑entertainment‑economy.html.

J60 (@jaber606660), Twitter post, May 1, 2014, 4:26 am (EST), https://twitter.com/jaber606660/status/461783645104386048.

Jones, Calvert W., Bedouins into Bourgeois: Remaking Citizens for Globalization, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Khalaf, May, “’Karnifāl al‑‘īd… mubādara sa‘ūdiyya tu‘īd bahjat al‑‘īd wa‑tatadhakkar aṭfāl sūriyyā [“Eid Carnival”… A Saudi initiative to return joy to Eid],” Alkhaleejonline, July 13, 2017. https://www.alkhaleejonline.net/مجتمع/كرنفالالعيدمبادرةسعوديةتعيدبهجةالعيدوتتذكرأطفالسوريا

Khalaf, Sulayman, “Poetics and politics of newly invented traditions in the Gulf: Camel racing in the United Arab Emirates,” Ethnology (2000): 243‑261

Khāshuqjī Jamāl [=Khashoggi, Jamal], “Ru’yat muwāṭin sa‘ūdī <<2030>> [Saudi Citizen’s Vision 2030],” Al‑Ḥayāt, October 15, 2016. Accessed online at kuttab.cc/wp/2016/10/15/2030‑رؤية‑مواطن‑سعودي/.

Le Renard, Amélie, “Engendering Consumerism in the Saudi Capital: A Study of Young Women’s Practices in Shopping Malls,” in Saudi Arabia in Transition, eds. Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Le Renard, Amélie, A society of young women: opportunities of place, power, and reform in Saudi Arabia, Stanford University Press, 2014.

Malāk, Fulayiḥ, “Al‑bilūt … al‑hurūb min al‑musalsalāt al‑hābiṭa [Al‑bilūt: Flight from vulgar television series],” ‘Ukāẓ, August 22, 2010. https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/350078.

Ménoret, Pascal & Samin, Nadav, “The bleak romance of Taḥliya Street,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 6, no. 2 (2013): 213‑228.

Ménoret, Pascal, Joyriding in Riyadh: oil, urbanism, and road revolt, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Mouline, Nabil, The clerics of Islam: Religious authority and political power in Saudi Arabia, Yale University Press, 2014.

Mullin, Janet E., “ ‘We had Carding’: hospitable card play and polite domestic sociability among the middling sort in eighteenth‑century England,” Journal of Social History (2009), 989‑1008.

Obaid, Ruba, “Why Baloot is so popular with Saudis,” Arab News, 19 February 2018, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1249291/saudi‑arabia.

Orbanes, Philip E., Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game‑‑and how it Got that Way, Boston: Da Capo Press, 2006.

Paul, Katie & Maclean, William, “Saudi entertainment chief sees cinemas returning, eventually,” Reuters, April 27, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us‑saudi‑entertainment‑idUSKBN17T2WP.

Prown, Jules David, “Mind in matter: An introduction to material culture theory and method,” Winterthur portfolio 17, no. 1 (1982).

Radwan, Rawan, “Baloot: The No. 1 social activity in Saudi Arabia is an integral part of the culture, and popular with people of all ages,” Arab News, November 2, 2018. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1397896/saudi‑arabia.

Rasooldeen, Mohammed & Hassan, Rashid, “Saudi Crown Prince pledges elimination of ‘what is left of extremism’ in near future,” Arab News, October 26, 2017. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1182831/saudi‑arabia

Scott, James C., Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed, Yale University Press, 1998.

Shihabi, Ali (@AliShihabi), Twitter post, July 21, 2019, 5:57AM (EST), https://twitter.com/alishihabi/status/1152880253657911296?lang=en.

Spencer, Richard, “Saudi Arabia’s entertainment chief sacked over Russian circus outcry,” The Times, June 19, 2018. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/saudi‑arabia‑s‑entertainment‑chief‑sacked‑over‑russian‑circus‑outcry‑m73hq7kn0.

Thompson, Mark, Being Young Male and Saudi: Identity and Politics in a Globalized Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2019: 255‑257.

Twenge, Jean, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” The Atlantic, September 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has‑the‑smartphone‑destroyed‑a‑generation/534198/

Vitalis, Robert, America's kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi oil frontier, Palo Alto (Cal), Stanford University Press, 2007

Wijman, Tom, “Mobile Revenues Account for More Than 50% of the Global Games Market as It Reaches $137.9 Billion in 2018,” Newzoo, April 30, 2018, [https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/global‑games‑market‑reaches‑99‑6‑billion‑2016‑mobile‑generating‑37/].

Wynn, Lisa L., Pyramids and nightclubs: A travel ethnography of Arab and Western imaginations of Egypt, from King Tut and a colony of Atlantis to rumors of sex orgies, urban legends about a marauding prince, and blonde belly dancers, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007.

Zaini, Saffanah, “Nostalgia for the Past: Saudis Lead Revival in Board Games”, Blog post, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, October 23, 2017, [https://agsiw.org/nostalgia‑past‑saudis‑lead‑revival‑board‑games/].

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Notes

1 Wynn, 2007, p. 169‑199.

2 Ménoret & Samin, 2013; Ménoret, 2011, p. 170‑171.

3 Ménoret, 2011, p. 171‑172.

4 Ennis, 2015, p. 120‑124.

5 Khalaf, 2000; Cooke, 2014, p. 101‑108.

6 Hammond, 2012, p. 44‑65.

7 Black, 2013.

8 Mouline, 2014, p. 203‑234.

9 For an argument that these artists play a more expansive role in shaping and narrative Saudi popular culture, see Foley, 2019.

10 Obaid, 2019.

11 Interview with female game developer L., November 5, 2018. I have elected to use only first initials throughout in reference to game designers unless comments are publicly attributed in media sources.

12 Mullin, 2009, p. 989.

13 Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta, Saudi Arabia, Fatwā 4338, November 17, 1981, https://rsalafs.com/?p=1901.

14 Al‑Mushayqaḥ, 2000.

15 Bādī, 2004.

16 The episode depicts a game of bilūt that transforms into a fantastical world inhabited by playing cards come to life. Ṭāsh mā ṭāsh, “Ḥārat al‑bilūt [Bilūt Alley],” September 24, 2006. Available online at online streaming service Shahid, [shahid.mbc.net/ar/series/طاشالموسم‑14‑الحلقة‑10/episode‑134207].

17 Malāk, 2010.

18 Al‑Bāḥiṣ, 2013.

19 See interview with Al‑Arian, 2018; See also Le Renard, 2014, pp. 3‑4.

20 A 2014 article in the Saudi Gazette still described bilūt fans as seeking “official” recognition for the game. See “Baloot: Seeking official recognition,” Saudi Gazette, September 25, 2014, [http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/98542] ; compare with announcement in Al‑Rashid, 2018 about the sport’s official recognition.

21 “Saudi gamers get together at kingdom's first‑ever Comic Con,” Reuters, February 19, 2013, [https://www.reuters.com/article/us‑saudi‑entertainment‑comic‑con‑idUSKBN15Y0KF].

22 Hubbard, 2018.

23 Chokshi, 2017.

24 Paul & Maclean, 2017.

25 Le Renard, 2015.

26 “Full Transcript of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Al Arabiya interview”, AlArabiya, April 25, 2016, [https://english.alarabiya.net/en/media/inside‑the‑newsroom/2016/04/25/Full‑Transcript‑of‑Prince‑Mohammed‑bin‑Salman‑s‑Al‑Arabiya‑interview.html].

27 Jones, 2017, p. 1.

28 Goldberg, 2018.

29 Rasooldeen & Hassan, 2017.

30 Radwan, 2018, [https://www.arabnews.com/node/1397896/saudi‑arabia] ; Al‑Mayman, 2018.

31 KSA Sports (@riyadiyatv), Twitter post, April 4, 2018, 3:06pm, EST, [https://twitter.com/riyadiyatv/status/981608919977033728].

32 “Saudi entertainment chief: My Reuters interview was misunderstood,” AlArabiya, April 30, 2017, [https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2017/04/30/Saudi‑entertainment‑chief‑My‑Reuters‑interview‑was‑misunderstood.html].

33 Spencer, 2018.

34 Khāshuqjī, 2016.

35 Al‑Zāmil, 2016, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoEQkFWKTk8].

36 Shihabi, 2019.

37 Prown, 1982, p. 2.

38 Donovan, 2017, pp. 52‑70.

39 Booth, 2018.

40 Orbanes, 2006, pp. 1‑10.

41 Quoted in Donovan, 2017, p. 75.

42 Hall, 2019.

43 Games covered include Saudi Deal (2nd edition, 2015, I.S.B.N. 978.603.01.1718.5), Fun Can (Al‑Gawhra Trading Establishment, 2015, no registration # provided), Wajh al‑Naḥs (Inov8, 2017, no registration # provided), Gool bs la tgool! [gūl bass lā tgūl] (Saudi Trifecta, 2016, no registration # provided), al‑Mu’āmara (2017, Saudi registration # 1438/9452), Ruḥt Fīhā (2018, Saudi registration # 1439/4399), Taḥt Li‑Taḥt (Taht alTaht, 2018, no registration # provided).

44 Furthermore, as few board‑game entrepreneurs would present their projects as explicitly artistic or political, the cultural expression of board games and board‑game narratives likely involves less self‑conscious spin or self‑censorship than, say, literary works or paintings.

45 Cronin, 2019. Video games certainly form a more lucrative market than their tabletop cousins: 2016, global sales for tabletop games reached $9.6 billion compared to a video‑games market of $100 billion. Birkner, 2017; Wijman, 2018.

46 “Quality of Life Program”, Saudi Vision 2030, 2018, p. 88.

47 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2013.

48 Interview with male game developer O., October 28, 2018.

49 Interview with male game developer F., October 13, 2018.

50 See Twitter thread regarding this topic following a question posed to an account that serves as a repository of facts about King Sa‘ūd bin ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz. J60, 2014.

51 “Hip‑hop on the rise in the Arab World: Homies in da hood”, Arab News, April 20, 2011, [https://www.arabnews.com/node/374934].

52 “Sa‘ūdiyyāt yudāfi‘na ‘an rukabihinna bi‑ḥamlat “Abū sarwāl wa‑fanīlla” al‑muḍādda [Saudi girls defend their knees and fight back with the Mr Shorts and Undershirt campaign]”, An7a, June 9, 2011, [https://an7a.com/2011/06/09/q‑q‑65/].

53 “Mubādara sa‘ūdiyya li‑tadrīb al‑aṭfāl”, Al‑Bayān, October 16, 2018, [https://www.albayan.ae/middle‑east‑dialogue/2018‑10‑16‑1.3383889].

54 Interview with L., November 5, 2018.

55 Alhussein, 2019, pp. 7‑8.

56 And over the objections of some religious scholars, see “Mufāja’a: al‑malik ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz qarrara ijāzat “al‑yawm al‑waṭanī” qabl 57 ‘āman”, AlArabiya, September 23, 2005, [https://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2005/09/23/17052.html].

57 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2013.

58 Hertog, 2015.

59 Taḥt Li‑Taḥt is a very similar game to al‑Mu’āmara.

60 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2013.

61 For one Saudi debate over how this rhetoric manifests online, see Bin Nakhīlān, 2020.

62 Interview with male game developer F.

63 Interview with male board game café owner R., November 5, 2018.

64 Interview with male café owner R.

65 Jones, 2017, pp. 12‑33.

66 Vision 2030, 2016, pp. 36‑37, 72.

67 Interview with male game developer A., October 4, 2018.

68 Interview with male game developer F.

69 Interview with female game developer L.

70 Interview with female game developer L.

71 Interview with male game developer O.

72 Hertog, 2011, p. 191‑201.

73 Interview with male café owner R.

74 Interview with male game developer O.

75 Hope, Scheck, Said & Jones, 2020.

76 “Quality of Life Program” Saudi Vision 2030, 2018, p. 88.

77 “Law of Printing and Publication,” Royal decree M/32, October 28, 2003, [https://www.saudiembassy.net/law‑printing‑and‑publication].

78 “UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism concludes visit to Saudi Arabia,” Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, United Nations, May 4, 2017, [https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21584&LangID=E].

79 Al‑‘Abūsh, 2016.

80 Al‑māliyya tad‘u al‑tijāra li‑haẓr lu‘bat S‘aūdī dīl [Finance calls on Commerce to ban Saudi Deal]”, Al‑Wasat, October 20, 2016, [http://www.alwasatnews.com/news/1171155.html]

81 Interview with male game developer A.

82 Interview with male game developer O.

83 Interview with male café owner R.

84 “Quality of Life Program” Saudi Vision 2030, 2018, p. 83.

85 Interview with male game developer O.

86 “National Character Enrichment Program,” Saudi Vision 2030, [https://vision2030.gov.sa/en/programs/NCEP], Accessed September 15, 2019.

87 Ḥaḍāḍ, 2017.

88 Scott, 1998, pp. 342‑348.

89 Hawthorne, 2018.

90 Nāshiṭūn: i‘tiqāl dā‘iya intaqada hay’at at‑tarfīh al‑sa‘ūdiyya”, Al‑Hurra, September 11, 2019, [https://www.alhurra.com/a/اعتقالداعيةانتقدهيئةالترفيهالسعودية/511903.html].

91 Al‑Mogren, 2018; Twenge, 2017.

92 See Al‑ʿAlawī, 2016 for a portrayal of a friend group’s efforts to organize a memorial service via a Whatsapp group. 

93 Donovan, 2017, p. 256.

94 Interview with female game developer R., November 2, 2019.

95 Interview with female game developer L.

96 Gool bs La Tgool, Saudi Trifecta, August 8, 2018, [https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.SaudiTrifecta&hl=en_US].

97 Sauditrifecta (@sauditrifecta), Instagram page, [https://www.instagram.com/p/Bm6KQ3sl7Eo/], posted August 25, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2019.

98 Khalaf, 2017.

99 Zaini, 2017.

100 Sabāḥ al‑‘Arabiyya: ’al‘āb sha‘biyya sa‘ūdiyya ta‘ūd min jadīd [Alarabiya Morning: Popular Saudi game return anew]”, AlArabiya, Youtube video, May 18, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zapdnLhZVys].

101 Interview with male game developer O.

102 Zaini, 2017.

103 Alhamdan, 2017.

104 Interview with male café owner R.

105 See an initial discussion on the reception of video and tabletop games in Saudi Arabia in Thompson, 2019, pp. 255‑257.

106 Bishr, 2007.

107 Alahbabi, 2009, pp. 85‑111.

108 Ménoret, 2011, pp. 169‑171.

109 Determann, 2014.

110 For a critical look at the reception of “reform” under Kings Sa‘ūd and Faiṣal, see Vitalis, 2007; for a critical assessment of “reform” under King ‘Abdullāh, see Hammond, 2012, p. 117‑153.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Cumulative percentage of the 224 games in the “Skill Games” category of Jarir Bookstore's website that are primarily in Arabic, beginning with the oldest available product and continuing to the most recent addition to the store’s offerings. While not a perfect measure of the interest in Arabic‑language games, given the lack of available data on board‑game sales this forms the best available proxy. Accessed July 20, 2020. https://www.jarir.com/​sa‑en/kids‑development/puzzles‑and‑skill‑games.html?cat=378%2C526&sort=created_at‑desc
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 12k
Titre Figure 2: Clockwise from top left: Saudi Deal, Gool bs La Tgool, Ruḥt Fīhā, Al‑Mu’āmara.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 1,7M
Titre Figure 3: Five of the characters included in the game Ruḥt Fīhā. From left to right: Abū Sarwāl wa‑falīna (“Mr. Shorts and Undershirt”), al‑Kūbrā (the “Cobra,” referring to the style of wearing the red‑and‑white ghutra), al‑Gāngstīr (the “Gangster”), al‑Dāfūr (the “Nerd”), and al‑Ṭāḥis (the “Slacker”).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 714k
Titre Figure 4: Depictions of “Rich Uncle Pennybags” in Monopoly Deal (left) and Saudi Deal (right). Source: Monopoly Deal Card Game, Copyright Hasbro, Inc. (2008); Saudi Deal (card game), Copyright Zaynab al‑Līfa (2015).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 1,1M
Titre Figure 5: The “shaykh” in various Saudi tabletop games. From left to right: the bisht card protects players from losing the game in Ruḥt Fīhā; the shaykh allows players to acquire more money in al‑Mu’āmara; in Monopoly Deal, the card “idfaʿ w‑anta sākit” [Pay without saying anything], with the shaykh speaking the line, forces players to obey any other “action card”; likewise, in Monopoly Deal, the card “ʿaṭih illī yabī” [“Give him what he wants”] utilizes the image of the shaykh in forcing players to hand over money.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-5.png
Fichier image/png, 429k
Titre Figure 6: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative in 2017, comparing the “old” Saudi Arabia (a Nokia 105 cell phone, c. 2013 but similar to older models that date back to 2003) and the “new” Saudi Arabia (an iPhone 8, released in 2017). Source: Ahmed Al Omran, Twitter post (@ahmed). October 24, 2017. https://twitter.com/​ahmed/​status/​922931058932191232
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
Titre Figure 7: Players' pledge inside the lid of the game box for Gool bs La Tgool. The text reads: “Pledge” ‑ “We, the players of Gool bs La Tgool, pledge to leave our phones inside the box... and to play without using technology to enjoy and live in the moment in its entirety.”
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cy/docannexe/image/6291/img-7.png
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Andrew Leber, « Making Moves: Reading Saudi Social Change through Commercial Tabletop Games », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 février 2021, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/6291 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.6291

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Andrew Leber

Harvard University, GSAS

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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