Saudis battle killjoy image with monster trucks and hip hop

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Monster trucks, hip-hop dancing and Game of Thrones all have one surprising thing in common now: Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom, which bans movie theaters and other entertainment venues, is challenging its ultraconservative image and loosening the reins on fun by opening its doors to live shows, including some American ones.

Clerics and many citizens still consider it all very sinful, but the growing entertainment scene has a powerful backer - the second-in-line to the throne. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s support is key to this cultural push, which also means the fun is tightly controlled.

Still, it’s a notable shift from just a few years ago, when the religious police - known as the Muttawa- would shoo women out of malls for wearing bright nail polish, insist restaurants turn off music and break up gatherings where unrelated men and women were mixing.

Last year, the Muttawa were ordered to soften their approach and their powers were curtailed.

Though most Saudis voluntarily adhere to the country’s Islamic mores, there are plenty who are happy to embrace reforms - or what could also be seen as a return to the more relaxed era of the 1980s, when music concerts were performed.

The recent all-male concert of Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu was both nostalgic and ground-breaking. He had not performed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, since the late 1980s.

History is also being made. The first ever Comic-Con event in Saudi Arabia drew thousands of spectators in February in the Red Sea city of Jiddah.

Fans dressed up as their favorite Marvel characters. Actors Julian Glover and Charles Dance - Grand Maester Pycelle and Tywin Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones - made an appearance. Rock music blared in the halls. For most of the event men and women were not segregated - a surprising departure from the norm in schools, universities, mosques, restaurants and the many Starbucks and Pizza Huts across the country.

Though women must dress in loosely-fitted, long robes and most cover their hair and face with black veils, there was a female-only area at Comic-Con for those dressed up in colorful superhero costumes.