Dining with the undead in Saudi

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Skeletons on the walls and trays lined with severed hands, a horror restaurant has opened its doors and is attracting horror movie fans to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, which is trying to shed its past image.

"I like horror in general. Here it's beautiful and fun," Jawaher Abdallah, a doctor among the first customers of "Shadows", told AFP, before taking a selfie with a mannequin of a blood-stained woman.

In relative darkness and to a horror movie soundtrack, waiters are busy serving blood-stained cups and dishes presented in skulls.

Once known mainly for its Islamic holy sites and its great oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has been trying in recent years to break away from ultra-conservatism, setting back to the world to be more attractive and open.

The de facto ruler of this Gulf kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 launched a social and economic reform intended in particular to diversify the country's economy, ultra dependent on black gold.

The world's largest exporter of crude oil and the Arab world's biggest economic power, Saudi Arabia has thus multiplied major sporting and entertainment events, but its image remains tarnished by the fierce repression of civil society, from political opponents to feminist activists.

- "New Experiences" -

At the entrance to "Shadows" in northern Riyadh, Suleiman Al-Omari was drawn to red-eyed bats and dark shadows of ghosts in the windows.

"We are looking for new experiences that are now available in Riyadh," the 45-year-old Saudi who came to dine with his family told AFP.

"In the past, we used to go to restaurants to get full, but now we also come to have fun and be scared," continued the father.

For decades, Saudis had to travel to more entertaining cities in Europe or the Middle East, but authorities now hope to fuel more local tourism.

Noura Al-Assaf, 26, who works in human resources, is not convinced about the "Shadows" restaurant, however: the images of horror and the screams of terror have spoiled her appetite.

"I came to have fun but the atmosphere and the show are too terrifying. I don't want to eat anymore", she confided nervously to AFP, while the waiter served her a plate of pasta on a tray decorated with a black skull all smiling.

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