Saudi Arabia, Dec 12 (Forbes) – Saudi Arabia is to have its first public cinemas in more than 35 years, after the government announced on Monday that it was lifting its ban on movie theaters.
The move was announced by the General Commission for Audio-visual Media, chaired by minister of culture and information Dr. Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad. According to the government statement, the licensing process for cinema operators will start within 90 days.
It will not be a free-for-all, and the type of films that will be screened is likely to be tightly circumscribed. The Ministry of Culture and Information has said that films “will be subject to censorship according to media policy standards of the kingdom” and in line with its strict social code.
There are several reasons for the changes, not least the hope that the country can develop a stronger cultural and entertainment sector. Music concerts are now becoming relatively common in Saudi Arabia, and the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) promotes a wide range of events in cities around the country.
The development of the domestic leisure industry may persuade Saudis to spend more money inside the kingdom, rather than heading to more liberal cities in the surrounding region, such as Dubai and Manama, the capital of Bahrain. The Saudi government estimates that the cinema sector will contribute more than SR90bn ($24bn) to the country’s economy by 2030, creating 30,000 permanent jobs and 130,000 temporary jobs in the process.
Despite the formal ban, some film festivals have been held in the country in recent years, and local directors have produced some notable works that have done well internationally, including the 2012 film Wadjda by director Haifaa al-Mansour and, more recently, Barakah Meets Barakah by director Mahmoud Sabbagh.
Companies have been keeping a close eye on developments, and many should be ready to quickly take advantage of the latest reform. Shopping mall operator Arabian Malls said earlier this year that it had allocated space for cinemas in up to 10 malls under development around the country.
UAE-based Majid Al Futtaim also welcomed the latest announcement. In a statement, it said it could mean the creation of thousands of jobs. It is lining up its Vox Cinemas brand to enter the market in the months ahead.
The decision to allow cinemas to reopen is the latest step in a wide-ranging program of reforms currently under way in Saudi Arabia, where locals have had to deal with deeply conservative rules imposed as a result of the country’s adherence to a strict Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. Among the other recent changes, the government announced in September that women would at last be allowed to drive. More liberal rules have also been mooted for some large new developments, including a Red Sea resort currently being planned on the west coast.
At the forefront of the reform drive is Crown Price Mohammed Bin Salman, who has been leading a high-profile anti-corruption campaign at home while also being linked to the record-setting $450m purchase of a Leonardo da Vinci painting abroad. (The Saudi Embassy denied that Prince Mohammed was involved, suggesting in a statement that the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism had acquired the work by using another Saudi prince as an intermediary purchaser.)