Saudi gamers get together at kingdom's first-ever Comic Con

JEDDAH, Feb 19 (Reuters) - In a country where the use of magic is a crime punishable by beheading, it's not every day that young Saudis wander down the street dressed as the Hulk or Doctor Doom.

But for three days over the weekend, some 20,000 Saudis decked out in costumes and face paint queued to get into Saudi Arabia's first-ever Comic Con, where robots, video games and giant anime figures filled a tent in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

The global comics expo was held under the auspices of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, which has bucked some of the austere Islamic kingdom's strict social codes to host a series of festivals, comedy shows and concerts this year.

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Saudi Arabia's first-ever Comic Con
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Saudi Arabia's first-ever Comic Con

Saudis attend the country's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre.

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

US actors dressed up as members of Marvel's Avengers perform on stage during Saudi Arabia's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre. 

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi women queue up outside the venue hosting the country's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre. 

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

US actors dressed up as members of Marvel's Avengers perform on stage during Saudi Arabia's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre. 

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi women arrive to attend the first ever Comic-Con event held in the coastal city of Jeddah, on February 16, 2017. The first edition of the US-based pop culture Comic-Con is being held in Saudi Arabia featuring a mix of robots, gaming and Saudi television and film industry luminaries. 

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudis attend the country's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre.

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

A Saudi woman films using her mobile during the first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal City of Jeddah, on February 16, 2017. The first edition of the US-based pop culture Comic-Con is being held in Saudi Arabia featuring a mix of robots, gaming and Saudi television and film industry luminaries. 

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

US actors dressed up as members of Marvel's Avengers perform on stage during Saudi Arabia's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre. 

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

A Lebanese woman poses for a selfie with a man dressed up as 'Iron Man' during Saudi Arabia's first ever Comic-Con event in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 16, 2017. The three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events is part of a government initiative to bring more entertainment to Saudi Arabia which bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatre.

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

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Saudi Arabia is trying to boost its entertainment sector as part of an economic and social reform drive aimed at creating jobs and weaning the country off its dependence on oil.

"The level of entertainment has risen so much from previous years. There used to be no public places like this for families, there was no gender mixing, there was no entertainment, there were no shows," said Modah Al-Bakheet, a Jeddah resident.

Comic Con started in 1970 when a group of about 100 science fiction fans in San Diego got together to swap comic books.

It has since grown into a globally recognized set of fantasy celebrations, drawing over 130,000 fans to events in London, Moscow, Delhi, Sydney and Dubai.

The Jeddah version still had some distinctly Saudi quirks: men and women queued in separate lines outside the venue, guarded by a heavy police presence, and the show ground to a halt each time the call to prayer was heard.

But inside the crowded tent, participants mingled around pop art booths and competed in video game competitions together, an unusual sight in a country that bars the mixing of men and women who are not related.

Objections by religious conservatives who likened the event to "devil worship" appeared to have had little effect.

For Obada Awad, whose Riyadh-based Time Entertainment organized Jeddah's Comic Con, the green light from the government has opened up new business opportunities he once only dreamed of.

(Reporting by Ismail Nofal in Jeddah; Writing by Katie Paul; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

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