Saudi Arabia has announced plans to allow public cinemas open for the first time in more than 35 years in a series of gestures toward modernization in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The government said it would begin licensing cinemas immediately and the first movie theatres are expected to open next March, in a decision that could boost the kingdom’s nascent film industry.
A resolution was passed on Monday, Dec. 11, allowing the Board of the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to grant licenses to cinemas, including commercial providers.
A statement by Awwad Alawwad, the Information and Culture Minister, who chairs the GCAM, the industry regulator reads:
“Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate in the Kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years.
“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy.
“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.”
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The government anticipates the opening of 300 cinemas with over 2,000 screens by 2030, contributing $24bn to the economy and creating 30,000 jobs. It believes that the economy which has been hit hard by low oil prices will benefit from the growth of an entertainment industry.
Like most public spaces in the kingdom, cinema halls are expected to be segregated by gender or have a separate section for families.
Reviving cinemas represents a paradigm shift for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is promoting entertainment as part of sweeping changes known collectively as Vision 2030, which are being implemented despite opposition from conservatives.
Cinemas were banned in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists as Saudi society turned towards a restrictive form of the religion that discouraged public entertainment and many forms of mixing between men and women.
Saudi filmmakers have long argued that a ban on cinemas does not make sense in the age of YouTube. Saudi films have been making waves abroad, using the internet to circumvent distribution channels and the often stern gaze of state censors.
The moves to allow access to public cinemas by early 2018 is in keeping with a promise by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to return Saudi Arabia to a more tolerant version of Islam than the radical interpretation of the Muslim faith it adopted in 1979.
Under reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince, the government is easing many of those restrictions with measures like giving women the right to drive from June 2018 and to attend soccer games and allowing concerts and other forms of public entertainment.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s broad campaign also includes a broad drive against corruption, holding members of the Saudi elite in a luxury hotel, in what has been described as an effort to force them to repay billions of dollars diverted into personal coffers from other transactions. Critics say the detentions were intended to neutralize potential challengers.