Saudi Arabia will open movie cinemas this coming year, lifting a 35 year ban.
Movie Cinemas in Saudi Arabia
In an effort by the Kingdom to liberalize, commercial movie cinemas will open their doors as soon as March of this coming year. Variety reports that a resolution that allows the Culture Ministry to certify commercial theaters has recently passed, and the licensing process for new cinemas has already begun.
Back in the 1980s, theaters were banned due to their classification as a threat to religious and cultural identity. As the country became more and more conservative, culture associated with the Western world was shuttered to make room for new regulations that would move Saudi Arabia more towards the leadership’s religious ideals. The fact that Saudi Arabia will open movie cinemas in the new feature is a huge step forward for a country that has largely lagged behind more liberal countries in terms of rights and allowances for its citizens.
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Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a program of social and economic reforms under a “Vision 2030 banner,” have been bringing about relatively rapid change in the middle-eastern nation, and the removal of the ban and opening of cinemas is a part of that drive for progress. Saudi authorities were optimistic about the potential of the industry, anticipating 300 movie theaters opening, with 2000 screens by 2030.
Culture Minister Awwad Alawwad explained that the licensing was underway and that this was a major victory for Saudi Arabia’s cultural sector. “Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification; by developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the Kingdom’s entertainment options.”
The film industry in Saudi Arabia is also excited above the move. Dubai Film Festival general manager Shivani Pandya said in a statement that “[she] think[s] over the next few months there will be quite a few changes [in Saudi]; lots of exciting things coming up…Everybody is excited because it’s expected to open up a huge market.”
A huge population with nothing to do is an untapped market in Saudi Arabia, according to Karim Atassi, the supervisor in charge of business development for the Middle Eastern exhibition chain Cinemacity. The company is currently in talks to develop movie cinemas in several Saudi malls. There’s a race for developers to get their foot in, taking advantage of a population that’s extremely eager to get their hands on quality film.
The industry is expected to contribute an incredible amount to the economy, according to a statement by the Ministry of Culture and Information, contributing about $24 billion in growth as well as around 30000 permanent jobs. It’s a real possibility that the harsh rules and regulations imposed by previous leadership have stunted the growth of Saudi Arabia, both culturally and economically. While there’s no doubt that some in the country are incredibly wealthy due largely to the country’s oil reserves, capitalizing on an opportunity to grow the wealth of their country even further is in Saudi Arabia’s best interests.
A Potential Cultural Revolution
With the last movies being shown in the 1980s, Saudis haven’t seen any Western movies played in theaters since films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. After militants attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca back in 1979, the majority of public entertainment options were banned. Clerics were given far more control over school, courts, and social life, which led to a much more conservative society overall. Saudi Arabia will open movie cinemas soon enough, but Saudis have a big backlog of movies to go through.
The fact that Saudi Arabia will open movie theaters is just the most recent achievement in a series of major steps forward by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Perhaps most notable of the changes was the ban on female drivers. In a controversial move, he has also cracked down on any sort of dissent, arresting many members of the previous government such as clerics, as well as activists and businessmen that oppose his actions.
Although Saudi Arabia will open movie cinemas, they aren’t committing to any sort of westernization. The country will keep their moral systems in tact, for better or for worse, with separate seating sections for women and children, and for men. Still, this is a major step forward for a country that has been lagging behind due to the influence of clerics over almost every aspect of society.
While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is making efforts to liberalize the country which is a good thing in the eyes of many residents, he’s doing so using authoritarian means, which may be problematic. While a Western system of government may not work in a country like the Middle East, forcing unfamiliar views upon important members of the populace seems like a recipe for unrest. From the outside looking in, the changes Salman is making are a conscious effort to bring Saudi Arabian culture more in line with modern times. Saudi Arabia will open movie cinemas this coming year which is a major deal, whether the country can capitalize on this momentum and keep moving forward remains to be seen.