Riyadh: Saudi Arabia on Monday lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, part of a series of social reforms by the powerful crown prince that are shaking up the 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.
Reviving cinemas would represent a paradigm shift in the kingdom, which is promoting entertainment as part of a sweeping reform plan for a post-oil era, despite opposition from hardliners who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful.
“Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate in the Kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years,” the culture and information ministry said in a statement.
“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” the statement quoted Information Minister Awwad Al Awwad as saying.
Saudi Arabia is expected to have more than 300 cinemas — with over 2,000 screens — all across the kingdom by 2030, the ministry said.
Like most public spaces in the kingdom, cinema halls are expected to be segregated by gender or have a separate section for families.
Hardliners, who see cinemas as a threat to cultural and religious identity, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.
Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric warned in January of the “depravity” of cinemas, saying they would corrupt morals.
But authorities appear to be shrugging off the threat, with some comparing Saudi Arabia’s reform drive to a fast-moving bus — either people get on board or risk being left behind.
Saudis themselves appear quietly astounded by the torrid pace of social change, which includes the historic decision allowing women to drive from next June. Saudi Arabia in recent months has organised music concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration that saw people dancing in the streets to thumping electronic music for the first time.
The social transformation chimes with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to an “open, moderate Islam” and destroy extremist ideologies.
Saudi film-makers 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 sometimes the stern gaze of state censors. “It is a beautiful day in #SaudiArabia!” Saudi director Haifaa al Mansour said on Twitter, reacting to Monday’s announcement.
Her film Wadjda made history in 2013 after it became Saudi Arabia’s first Academy Award entry.
The film depicts the dream of a 10-year-old girl to get a bicycle just like the boys in her conservative neighbourhood. This year, the country is again vying for an Oscar with Barakah Meets Barakah, the kingdom’s first romantic comedy which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Without cinemas investment in films was unlikely to flourish and the depiction of Saudi society would not move beyond the foreign portrayal of Saudis as extremist or culturally primitive.
“Now our young men and women will show the world possibilities and stories worth seeing,” Saudi film-maker Aymen Tarek Jamal said on Twitter.
“Congratulations to the 2030 Generation.” The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from a protracted slump in oil prices. Saudis splurge billions of dollars annually to see movie shows and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai.
“Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification,” Al Awwad said. “By developing the broader cultural sector, we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options.” — AFP
Actor sees hope for ‘new civilisation’
Cairo: Saudi Arabian actor Hisham Fageeh (pictured) was shocked to hear the long-awaited news that the kingdom would finally be lifting its 35-year-old ban on public cinemas.
“It feels like we have been through the apocalypse, we survived and we are going to make a new civilisation,” Fageeh said.
Fageeh starred in the 2016 Saudi film Barakah Meets Barakah. It was submitted by Saudi Arabia as its entry for best foreign-language film at the 2017 Academy Awards, becoming the second-ever entry by Riyadh.
Barakah Meets Barakah had one public screening inside Saudi Arabia, at the King Abdullah Economic City, since it is a requirement before submission to the Oscars. “I feel good, but I am shocked,” said Fageeh, who is also a writer and a producer.
“We have been hearing about this for years, and everybody says it is going to happen soon,” he said. “Now, it seems more realistic. But I still won’t be able to believe it until I see it.” Fageeh is excited about the prospect of the public screening of films. Over the years, film shorts and feature films have only been shown in private gatherings.
“It’s a neo-liberal society, we have everything you can think of, if you are rich you can have a movie theatre in your back yard, but there is nothing for the public,” he said.
Fageeh is working on a new film and hopes it will be the first to be shown in the kingdom when the first movie theatres open in March 2018. “Or maybe Barakah Meets Barakah will be the first, I am crossing my fingers,” he said. — dpa