In the grand scheme of things, a quarter of a million tourists is not a huge number for the UAE, especially when you consider that the Dubai Mall alone boasted more than 50 million visitors last year. However, when you realise that this particular quarter of a million (almost) consisted of Saudis who had travelled with the sole intention of attending the cinema, it begins to seem rather more impressive. But, according to the mayor of Riyadh, Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf, the figure is no exaggeration.
“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.
Official figures for Saudis coming to the UAE just to watch films are, obviously, hard to find, but the acclaimed Saudi filmmaker Abdullah Al Eyaf believes the mayor’s estimates to be accurate, although the cinema might not be their only reason for visiting.
“It’s probably correct, but I don’t think they went there just to watch movies. But I would say that ‘watching movies’ would be in their top two priorities,” he says. He recalls an overseas holiday he made with friends several years ago, when they watched five films a day, one after the other. “We had to plan it very well. We were exhausted by the end.”
On a visit to Dubai earlier this year, Osman Ahmed, a 22-year-old Saudi, said he had watched three films so far in his five-day visit, and intended to squeeze in some more before he left. “The cinemas here are really advanced, with 3D and Imax, it’s an enjoyable experience,” he said.
Based in Jeddah, Ahmed said he and his friends used to visit Egypt for their cinematic relief. “But now there are problems there, so we came to Dubai.”
Regional uprisings may have diverted some Saudi cinema fans to the UAE, but for those living in and around Dammam, Bahrain is still a popular destination, just a short drive over the King Fahd Causeway. Al Eyaf, a self-styled "cinema activist", used this as the basis for his award-winning documentary Cinema 500km, which told the story of a Saudi film fan travelling 500km to Bahrain to watch a film in the cinema for the very first time in his life.
"I found a guy in Riyadh who likes cinema and writes about cinema on internet forums, but still wasn't able to enter a cinema. I followed him as he had his first passport issued and went to Bahrain to watch just one film," says Al Eyaf, who last year brought his film Six Blind Eyes to the Dubai International Film Festival. "In the film, I interviewed the director of a Bahraini cinema who said that 90 per cent of his customers were Saudi. I also spoke to the marketing network manager of Showtime, who told me that the biggest chunk of business came from Saudi Arabia."
With the increased use of YouTube (the second most-visited website in the kingdom), alongside the widespread availability of DVDs and films on satellite TV networks, the situation for Saudi film fans is improving. A report in December forecast that internet TV subscriptions in the country would quadruple this year, boosted by a home-cinema service by the local provider STC, which was showing Hollywood films at the same time as they were released in theatres elsewhere in the region. But the full cinema experience is still something that can only be found abroad (although Ahmed says one of his friends has built a theatre at home, including “special chairs”).
However, this is something that politicians have hinted could change in the not too-distant future. Both Prince Abdulaziz and the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information have voiced support for the opening of cinemas, saying that the “process” is underway, though when it might happen is difficult to predict.
“Things were being moved,” explains Al Eyaf. “In 2006, the first film festival was established in Jeddah and in 2008 the Saudi Film Competition, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Information, was honoured by the minister himself.”
Al Eyaf says he met the minister and raised cinema issues. “And he acted. A few months later, the first TV programme dedicated to Saudi filmmaking issues and short films was broadcast on Saudi national TV.”
Cinema 500km, which had its premiere at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Film Competition in 2006, picked up the Golden Palm two years later at the Jeddah Film Festival, a curious yet positive move for a film that discusses the issues of cinema in Saudi Arabia.
In 2009, more than 300 people turned up at the King Fahd cultural centre in Riyadh to watch Menahi, a comedy produced by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. It was "the first step in a peaceful revolution", according to one member of the audience.
But things took a turn for the worse later in the year, when the Jeddah Film Festival was cancelled at the 11th hour, apparently after pressure from conservative religious groups. The move was described by the Saudi writer Abdullah Al Alami as a “dark day for art and literature in our modern history”.
While Al Eyaf admits there are people within Saudi society who regard cinema as haram and think its main goal is to "corrupt the moral values of our society", he claims opinions are slowly changing. He points to the popular conservative Islamic TV network, Al Majd, as an example. "In the past few years it has started to show TV dramas and short films," he says.
“The medium itself is not an alien medium anymore. Ten years ago, whenever I spoke to a religious guy, he would say the cinema is ‘like a demon’. Today, most would say ‘it depends what you are going to show’.”
The next two years "will play a major role" in the process of opening Saudi cinemas, says Al Eyaf. In the meantime, it seems likely that the multiplexes of the UAE will continue to welcome thousands of Saudis, perhaps even this weekend, with the opening of The Hunger Games across the nation. And if you want to spot a movie-loving Saudi, keep your eyes open for someone who looks as if he has just watched several films back-to-back.
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