Does Saudi move to open cinemas herald new freedoms?

Analysts raise concerns over censorship as kingdom moves to end 35-year ban on theatres.

Saudi Arabia placed a complete ban on cinemas in the early 1980s [Saudi Press Agency via AP]

Saudi Arabia will lift a 35-year ban on cinemas and allow films to be screened as early as next year.

On Monday, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information approved licences for those wishing to open cinemas in the kingdom.

Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad, the Saudi culture minister, confirmed the report in a statement on Monday.

“The content of the offers will be subject to censorship according to the media policy of the kingdom,” he said.

Saudi Arabia placed a complete ban on cinemas in the early 1980s. The first cinemas are expected to open in March 2018.

Critics questioned whether Monday’s move signalled a new era of free speech.

“I don’t think it ushers a new era for freedom of expression,” Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and programmer, told Al Jazeera.

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“There have been several films made in Saudi [Arabia] before, and TV production is established in there.”

“There are concrete rules no Saudi filmmaker can transcend, namely anything related to the royal family.”

The decision to reopen comes amid a series of reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as part of the government’s Vision 2030 plan to revitalise and diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy.

Revenue windfall

According to the culture ministry, the government is looking to cash in on the film industry and expects a contribution of 90bn riyals ($24bn) to GDP and the creation of more than 30,000 permanent jobs by 2030.

Millions of people in the kingdom already have digital access to films through online-streaming services such as Netflix.

“I think technology has essentially made the ban on movie theatres almost obsolete because Saudis can access whatever films they want to see on their mobile phones at any time of day,” Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London, told Al Jazeera.


“It’s not as though Saudis are not watching films already. All that will change is that they will get to go together in larger groups to watch films.”

Since replacing his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as the crown prince in June, Mohammed bin Salman has made a number of policy changes, including an announcement in September that women will gain the right to drive in 2018.

“Where the government’s PR has been quite successful is that by emphasising these social reforms and issues like women’s driving, that is really improving the international reputation of the country without actually promising any kinds of reforms where political representation or human rights are concerned,” said Kinninmont, of Chatham House.

Meanwhile, there are also fears that the Saudi move could alter the cinema landscape in the region. 

“It will affect the film industry in the region big time,” said Fahim, the Egyptian film critic.

“Many filmmakers will try to cater for the Saudi market, which could result in conservative filmmaking, similar to what happened in Egypt in the 1980s.”


Shortly after the decision was made public, users on Twitter made the hashtag #SaudiMovieTitles trending by changing movie titles into a humorous ‘Saudi’ version.

The decision to open a cinemas in Saudi Arabia comes three days before a male-only pop concert in Jeddah.

Algerian singer Cheb Khaled and US rapper Nelly are due to perform at the event.

The concert was announced last November and tickets were sold for $120.

Saudi women took to social media to air their displeasure with not being allowed to attend the concert. 

Source: Al Jazeera