Saudi Arabia‘s first cinema in decades will open in the capital later this month, officials have said, while also announcing an agreement over the opening of dozens of theatres by 2023.
Saudi state media said on Wednesday that Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s main sovereign wealth fund, had signed a deal with AMC Entertainment Holdings to operate cinemas in the kingdom.
The two sides are expected to establish up to 40 theatres in 15 Saudi cities over the next five years, state news agency SPA reported.
Further ahead, between 50 and 100 cinemas will be set up in about 25 Saudi cities by 2030, it added.
The first cinema will open in Riyadh on April 18, according to a statement by the information ministry’s Centre for International Communication.
It will reportedly be located in the capital’s King Abdullah Financial District, in a site originally intended to be a symphony concert hall.
The announcement comes after the Saudi government said in December 2017 that it would lift a 35-year ban on cinemas and allow films to be screened as early as next year.
However, critics at the time questioned whether the 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.
“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.”
Millions of people in the kingdom already have digital access to films through online-streaming services such as Netflix.
There are still questions about what kinds of films will be screened in the new cinemas, as well as whether movie theatres will be segregated by gender.
Saudi Arabia placed a complete ban on cinemas in the early 1980s.
In January, feature-length animated children’s films were screened in makeshift theatres.