RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Saudi Arabia announced on Monday it will allow movie theaters to open in the conservative kingdom next year, for the first time in more than 35 years, in the latest social push by the country’s young crown prince.
Movie theaters were shut down in the 1980’s during a wave of ultraconservatism in the country. Many of Saudi Arabia’s clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films made in Egypt as sinful.
However, since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ascended to power under his father, King Salman, he has pushed for greater social openings such as lifting a ban on women driving next year and bringing back concerts and other forms of entertainment to satiate the desires of the country’s majority young population. The 32-year-old heir to the throne has also sought ways to boost local spending and create jobs amid lower oil prices.
According to Monday’s announcement, a resolution was passed paving the way for licenses to be granted to commercial movie theaters, with the first cinemas expected to open in March 2018.
Saudi filmmakers and movie buffs have been able to circumvent traditional censors by streaming movies online and watching films on satellite TV. Many also travel to neighboring countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to go to movie theaters.
Despite there being no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, young Saudi filmmakers have received government support and recognition in recent years.
The government has backed a Saudi film festival that’s taken place for the past few years in the eastern city of Dhahran. This year, some 60 Saudi films were screened.
The film “Wadjda” made history in 2013 by becoming the first Academy Award entry for Saudi Arabia, though it wasn’t nominated for the Oscars. The movie follows the story of a 10-year-old girl who dreams of having a bicycle, just like boys have in her ultraconservative neighborhood where men and women are strictly segregated and where boys and girls attend separate schools. The film was written and directed by Saudi female director Haifaa al-Mansour, who shot the film entirely in the kingdom.
Also, the Saudi film “Barakah Meets Barakah”, by director Mahmoud Sabbagh, made its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. The movie, which has been called the kingdom’s first romantic comedy, tells the story of a civil servant who falls for a Saudi girl whose Instagram posts have made her a local celebrity.
Though four years apart, the two films tackle the issue of gender segregation in Saudi Arabia, which remains largely enforced.
It was not immediately clear if movie theaters would have family-only sections, segregating women and families from the male-only audience. Another unknown was whether most major Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabic movie releases would be shown in theaters and how heavily edited the content will be.
The Ministry of Culture and Information did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The government says it will announce regulations in the coming weeks.
The Saudi government says the opening of movie theaters will contribute more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create more than 30,000 jobs by 2030. The kingdom says there will be 300 cinemas with around 2,000 screens built in the country by 2030.