Outcry over Saudi funding plan for Milan's La Scala opera house

Outcry over Saudi funding plan for Milan's La Scala opera house
In an interview on Tuesday in La Repubblica newspaper, La Scala director Alexander Pereira confirmed the historic theatre has negotiated a financing deal with the Saudi culture ministry.

4 min read
05 March, 2019
The deal would involve 15 million euros in Saudi Arabian government funds [Getty]
A proposal to use 15 million euros in Saudi Arabian government funds for Milan's La Scala opera house came under fire on Tuesday because of anger over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In an interview on Tuesday in La Repubblica newspaper, La Scala director Alexander Pereira confirmed the historic theatre has negotiated a financing deal with the Saudi culture ministry.

Pereira said the proposal was for a partnership of at least five years to raise three million euros a year.

He said talks with Saudi officials were suggested by people close to regional Lombardy region president Attilio Fontana, a member of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini's nationalist League party. 

In December, at the start of the new La Scala season, Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Badr bin Abdullah.

The Saudi minister might join the prestigious opera house's board, according to widespread Italian media reports.

The talks came under fire from opposition leaders amid global uproar over the October killing of the Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. Riyadh denies any involvement and says the killing was carried out by rogue agents.

"The idea that the Saudis will come into La Scala is a slap in the face for Milan over human rights," said Antonio Panzeri, a European lawmaker from the main opposition Democratic Party.

"I understand the need to find funds, but we absolutely cannot allow one of the most prestigious symbols of Milan to collaborate with those who trample on rights and freedom every day in their own country."

Forza Italia party lawmaker Maurizio Gasparri said the government has a duty to defend the "history and identity of La Scala", asking Bonisoli to clarify the government's position. 

Theatre director Pereira said he had followed the Khashoggi case "with dread" and was aware of the "despotic" nature of the Saudi regime. But he said he was convinced of the "positive force of music".

"Prince Badr is very determined," he said. "He could finance the Scala privately or redirect his proposal elsewhere.”

The news came just a day after new revelations emerged in the ongoing Turkish investigation into the killing of the journalist which suggested the body of Khashoggi may have been incinerated in an oven in the home of the former Saudi Consul General to Istanbul.


Saudi Arabia’s latest line of international sports and entertainments events, spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MbS] has been dogged by controversy following the murder of Khashoggi in October, which prompted business leaders and heads of state and business to boycott a major investment conference in Riyadh. 

Analysts say the relaxation of conservative restrictions are an attempt by the crown prince to curry favour with young Saudis, and halt a brain drain of educated nationals to more liberal countries.

Tiger Woods reportedly refused to play in the European Tour's inaugural event hosted in the kingdom. According to a Telegraph report, the 14-time major-winner turned down a bumper pay cheque - $2.5 million, believed to be his biggest overseas fee. 

In October, former British-Yemeni superstar boxer, Prince Naseem Hamed took an unexpected political stance during Saudi Arabia's first professional boxing event, where he highlighted the war in neighbouring Yemen to a packed out stadium in Jeddah.

The British-born boxer, who is of Yemeni origin, then went on to chant a popular Arabic nationalistic slogan while on the ring, stating "With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for you O' Yemen".

"Yemen is going through some hard times, please do not forget to pray for Yemen," he added, speaking in Arabic.

The following month, Saudi Arabia hosted the World Wrestling Entertainment's [WWE] controversial 'Crown Jewel' event, prompting some fans to accuse the sports entertainment firm of accepting "Saudi blood money".

2019 plans

Running with the bulls and a NBA basketball match will be some of the highlights of Saudi Arabia's entertainment calendar in 2019, as the kingdom seeks to shake-up its image following negative publicity surrounding the murder of Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia's controversial General Entertainment Authority chief Turki al-Sheikh - a close confidant of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - unveiled the  plans for the year, as the kingdom attempts to promote sports and other events.

Among the sporting events planned are an NBA game, although no details were provided on which teams will take part and when.

Former football stars David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane will also visit the kingdom, according to the entertainment authority, but no further information was available.

There are also plans for a recreation of the "Running of the Bulls", the famous bull-run in Spain's Pamplona.

Musicians Jay Z, DJ Khaled and Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu is also due to perform, although no dates have been set.

London's Madame's Tussaud's wax museum will also open, according to Al-Sheikh.

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