Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in more than 35 years will open on 18 April, showing the action movie Black Panther. It is part of a deal done with the world’s biggest cinema chain, AMC, to open up to 40 cinemas in some 15 Saudi cities over the next five years.
The past year has seen the start of a huge drive to bring entertainment to Saudi Arabia as part of Vision 2030. That is the ambitious plan for economic and social reform by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The conservative Muslim kingdom had cinemas in the 1970s, but they were closed at the behest of hardline Islamic clerics. Last year, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh reportedly warned of the “depravity” of cinemas, saying they would corrupt morals if allowed.
Saudi Arabia’s royal family and religious establishment adhere to an austere form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, and Islamic codes of behaviour and dress are strictly enforced. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said the return of “moderate Islam” is key to his plans to modernise the Gulf kingdom.
He told reporters that 70% of the Saudi population was under 30 and that they wanted a “life in which our religion translates to tolerance”. The prince vowed to “eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon”. He made the comments after announcing the investment of $500bn (£381bn) in a new city and business zone.
Dubbed NEOM, it will be situated on 26,500 sq km (10,230 sq miles) of Saudi Arabia’s north-western Red Sea coast, near Egypt and Jordan. Saudi Arabia’s royal family and religious establishment adhere to an austere form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, and the king styles himself as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.
Islamic codes of behavior and dress are strictly enforced in the kingdom. Last year, Prince Mohammed unveiled a wide-ranging plan to bring social and economic change to the oil-dependent kingdom known as Vision 2030.
As part of those reforms, the 32-year-old has proposed the partial privatisation of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, and the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.
And in September his father, King Salman, announced that a ban on women drivers would end next year, despite long-standing opposition from religious conservatives. The government also wants to invest in the entertainment sector. Concerts are once again being held and cinemas are expected to return soon.
Prince Mohammed defended the reforms at an economic conference in Riyadh on Tuesday that drew foreign investors and dignitaries. “We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe,” he said.
“We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness,” he added.
The prince stressed that Saudi Arabia “was not like this before 1979”, when there was an Islamic revolution in Iran and militants occupied Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Afterwards, public entertainment in Saudi Arabia was banned and clerics were given more control over public life.
Saudis are enthusiastic consumers of Western media and culture, but have been confined to watching privately, on their phones and via satellite television at home. Both Saudi authorities and cinema operators believe there is a huge untapped market that could generate up to $1bn (£710m) in annual ticket sales through some 350 theatres by 2030.
The first screen to open will be in the King Abdullah Financial District of the capital, and a source told Reuters news agency the first film shown would be Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther.
The source also said that cinemas would not be segregated by gender, as is normally required in public venues. It is unclear, however, what kind of movies will be permitted – and it is likely that some will be censored. Vision 2030 is intended to help divert the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil, provide new jobs and give Saudis a reason to spend their money at home rather than abroad.