FAQ: Cinemas to open in Saudi Arabia

We take a look at the current state of Saudi Arabian cinema and what the future holds

Saudis attend the "Short Film Competition 2" festival on October 20, 2017, at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh.
The rare movie night this week in Riyadh was a precursor to what is expected to be a formal lifting of the kingdom's ban on cinemas, long vilified as vulgar and sinful by religious hardliners. / AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE
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For the first time in more than 35 years, commercial cinemas in Saudi Arabia will be open to the public. The move comes as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, which includes a range of economic and social reforms — including allowing women to drive in the kingdom as of June 2018. We take a look at the current state of Saudi Arabian cinema and what the future holds.

Why was cinema banned in Saudi?

Cinemas were banned in the 1980s as they were considered a corrupting influence and a threat to religious and cultural identity.

How have people in Saudi managed to watch films and where?

People who want to watch films in Saudi Arabia mainly do so within their homes via satellite TV, DVD or over the internet. Despite there being no cinema, Saudi has successfully hosted four film festivals.  Launched by the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, the film festival had its fourth edition in March 2017 after a hiatus of four years. In total, 59 films were screened during the festival.

Are there any Saudi films?

There have only been a handful of Saudi-made films, the most notable of which is Wadjda. Written and directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, it was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2013. It was the first film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.

Wajda tells the story of a young girl who longs to ride a bike but is trapped by the conservatism of the neighbourhood and her country.

Another film of note was Barakah Yoqabil Barakah, which was entered as Saudi Arabia's choice for the Oscar Awards in 2017. The comedy, directed and written by Mahmoud Sabbagh, tells the tale of a romance between a middle-class man and a woman from a wealthy family. It was the first Saudi film to debut on Netflix.

When will cinemas in Saudi open?

The first movie theatres are slated to open in March 2018. There are plans to have more than 2,000 screens up and running by 2030.

What are the knock-on effects?

The move to open cinemas in Saudi could affect tourism for the UAE and Bahrain, a concept explored in Saudi Arabian documentary film Cinema 500km. Directed by Abdullah Al Eyaf, the film tells the story a 21-year-old Saudi film fan who has to travel 500 kilometres to Bahrain for his first cinema experience.

In 2012, the mayor of Riyadh, Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf, told The National that a surprisingly large number of tourists visited the UAE from Saudi solely to attend the cinema.

“About 230,000 tourists from the kingdom went to the United Arab Emirates in the summer of 2010 simply for the sake of watching movies,” said the mayor earlier this year, in a comment that was jumped on by those pushing for further liberalisation in a country where cinemas have been banned since the 1970s. “It shows that cinemas in the kingdom have become important,” he added.


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